By Conor Humphries and Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - The European Cockpit Association (ECA) pilot group has urged regulators to take action over what it described as a "safety hazard" caused by Ryanair's <RYA.I> approach to flight crews' sick leave, according to a letter seen by Reuters.
Europe's largest budget carrier has spent the last two years negotiating improved pay and conditions with its pilots and cabin crew after a revolt by some staff forced it to recognize trade unions for the first time.
The ECA, which represents pilots' associations in 33 European countries, said Ryanair adopts a practice of systematically questioning absences due to certified sickness, leading to investigative and disciplinary meetings where staff are threatened with potential dismissal.
Asked about the ECA's concerns, a Ryanair spokeswoman said the airline operates "a standard sick pay scheme, and like all employers, manages absenteeisms".
The airline, which has never had a fatal crash and has one of the youngest fleets in Europe, regularly cites safety as its top priority.
The ECA said it raised the issue with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) a year ago but that Ryanair's "problematic approach" to flight crew's sickness has not substantially changed.
"In fact, we are concerned that the safety hazard created by this approach remains fully in place, must be considered endemic, and quite evidently is not adequately addressed by the competent national authority: the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA)," the letter dated Nov. 5 said.
A spokeswoman for the ECA confirmed it had sent such a letter to the regulator, the second in a year, and that it was concerned that the safety hazard related to Ryanair's policy remains unaddressed.
In the letter, the ECA said it was aware that the EASA raised the matter with the IAA following the initial complaint but that the Irish regulator told one of the ECA's member groups that it was satisfied there was not a systematic issue of crews flying while unfit due to fear of sanction at Ryanair.
The IAA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Citing letters sent to staff, the ECA said Ryanair or broker agencies overseeing agency workers used by the airline have gone as far as threatening to halt pilots' career progression, due to their sickness rate.
The pilot group called on the European regulator to ensure the IAA adequately fulfils its safety oversight role by summoning Ryanair to stop the practice of intimidating letters and investigative proceedings and also carry out an independent confidential survey among Ryanair crew.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)