(Adds Ryanair says BALPA claims have 'no validity'; says majority of pilots are direct employees)
LONDON, Oct 26 (Reuters) - A British union is asking Ryanair pilots pushing for better working conditions at the Irish budget airline whether they would be willing to take industrial action.
Europe's largest airline by passenger numbers has cancelled around 20,000 flights, citing a shortage of standby pilots to ensure the smooth operation of its fleet of 400 planes.
The crunch has prompted Ryanair to curb its growth plans for next summer and launch a drive to hire hundreds of new pilots and convince those who remain not to leave.
But its retention efforts, including the offer of large pay rises with conditions attached, have so far not been well received by many pilots, who want better working conditions.
A majority of pilots at Stansted, Ryanair's largest base, last week rejected an offer of higher pay. Many Ryanair pilots are employed via third-party agencies, though the airline says a majority are direct employees.
The BALPA union said in a statement on Thursday it was asking pilots whether they would support a group legal action to establish employee or worker rights.
"The desire amongst pilots to change Ryanair for the better is real," BALPA General Secretary Brian Strutton said.
"They tell us they are fed up with the way they are treated and that's why they are saying no to big pay rises that have been offered by Ryanair management," he said.
Ryanair, which does not recognise unions, has so far resisted moves by pilots to get the company to take a new approach to industrial relations, saying it already has structures in place for them to negotiate with management.
Ryanair rejected BALPA's complaints about Ryanair's working conditions as having "no validity." In a statement it said it was offering pilots wages that are 20 percent higher than some rivals as well as "unmatched job security".
The issue has highlighted competition among carriers in Europe for staff, although the recent collapse of two airlines, Monarch and Air Berlin, has made experienced pilots available.
Norwegian Air Shuttle said on Thursday it expected pay levels to rise for pilots as it seeks to compete with rivals for the additional air crew needed to expand its network.
Lufthansa is also looking for new pilots as it expands its Eurowings budget airline and has received applications from pilots not just at Air Berlin but at other airlines as well.
"It's probably a good position to be in right now as an employer in the German market when it comes to pilots," Lufthansa's chief executive, Carsten Spohr, said on Wednesday.
"I think the pilot shortage is happening on the lowest end of the pay scheme and those who don't treat their people fairly."
Analysts will be looking for more information from Ryanair when it reports results on Tuesday.
The Irish airline has persuaded Peter Bellew, the CEO of Malaysia Airlines, to return to his former employer to help deal with the staffing problems as chief operations officer, from Dec. 1.
Bellew was director of flight operations at Ryanair until he left in 2014. (Reporting by Alistair Smout; additional reporting by Victoria Bryan in Berlin and Conor Humphries in Dublin; Editing by Alexander Smith, Greg Mahlich)