Conflict between Ryanair and its pilots appears to be escalating as pilots in Britain consider a group legal action to challenge the airline's widespread use of employment through agencies or special companies.

It is understood that the British Airline Pilots' Association (BALPA) has launched a survey of Ryanair pilots - including questions about potential support for industrial action.

The survey also asks whether pilots employed on agency contracts would back a group legal action to test the legality of their employment structures, and to establish better rights as employees.

BALPA General Secretary Brian Strutton said Ryanair was unique in the complexity of its employment structures, and his organisation was issuing the survey at the request of Ryanair pilots, who have until 6 November to respond to it. 

He said they were also examining a potential legal challenge to Ryanair's employment practices, similar to that mounted recently by Uber drivers.

In a response, Ryanair rejected the BALPA allegations about its "complex employment structures" as false.

It said a majority of Ryanair pilots in 2017 are direct employees, and a minority are contractors.

It said this was just like the contractor pilots which predominate among Norwegian, Wizz, Easyjet and other low-cost airlines in Europe.

The airline also highlighted the presence of many contractors in hospitals, hotels, airports and media companies.

It said that Ryanair pilots wishing to discuss or improve their pay or conditions can do so at any time using the established collective bargaining process through individual base ERCs.

The airline noted that that system had delivered "industry leading pay (20% higher than competitor airline pilots), 5 on/4off rosters and unmatched job security".

A number of international pilot organisations have pledged support to the pilots in their bid to establish their desired form of collective bargaining in Ryanair in pursuit of better pay and conditions, including more permanent contracts.

Pilots held a meeting in Dublin today, where representatives from American unions including the Southwest Airlines Pilots' Association and the Allied Pilots Association pledged support to their Ryanair colleagues in pursuit of their aims. 

In addition, the European Cockpit Association has launched a ‘2017 Pilot Unity Fund’ to crowd-fund financial support for any pilots who might find themselves "recently and unexpectedly unemployed" after distinguishing themselves in pursuit of collective bargaining for their profession.

Meanwhile, pilot sources at Ryanair say five of the airline's 87 bases have now voted to reject the company's offer of pay rises, which was conditional on continuing to negotiate through individual base Employee Representative Councils, rather than through unions or a proposed collective in-house body (the European Employee Representative Council).

According to information seen by RTÉ, pilots at Madrid, Stansted, Glasgow, Pescara and Naples decided to reject the deal which could have seen increases of up to €22,000.

Bases where pilots voted to accept the management proposals and the conditions attached to them were Belfast, Gdansk, Prestwick, and Lamezia, though Ryanair has previously stated that it has done pay deals with at least 10 bases.

Asked for confirmation of whether RTÉ's information was correct, a Ryanair spokesperson responded: "As you well know, we don't comment on your rumour or speculation (which, as in this case, is routinely inaccurate)".

However, the airline declined to supply specific details of which bases have accepted the Ryanair pay proposals.