Pilots' stir disrupts Lufthansa flights but relatively calm

The strike follows several months of negotiations over pay increases and benefits for pilots.

Advance planning by Lufthansa, one of Europe’s busiest airlines, seemed to be paying off Wednesday at the beginning of a three-day strike by pilots, despite the cancellation of about 900 flights worldwide. 

But some travellers were nonetheless left scrambling to find alternative flights. And the city of Frankfurt, a major Lufthansa hub, was bracing for possible trouble in the coming days, as thousands of attendees of a big lighting industry trade show wondered whether they would be able to find ways out of the city on Thursday and Friday. 

“My good plans are totally destroyed,” said John Chen, owner of Elite Lighting, which is based in Zhongshan, China. He had been in Frankfurt for three days to attend the lighting show and had planned to visit a customer in Katowice, Poland, afterward. “My customer will be very disappointed because of my absence.” 

Generally, though, the airports at Frankfurt and Munich, another Lufthansa hub, were relatively calm after a two-day effort by the airline to notify passengers of flight cancellations that were expected to affect more than 4,25,000 travellers through Friday. Lufthansa said it expected to cancel an additional 1,200 flights scheduled for Thursday. 

Lufthansa, Europe’s second-largest airline by number of passengers after Ryanair, said that it had sent more than 2,00,000 text messages and emails to passengers with reservations for flights during the strike period, warning them of the cancellations. Thousands of customers had also consulted a list of affected flights posted on the airline’s website. 

Robert Payne, a spokesman for Frankfurt Airport, said that roughly 700 inbound and outbound flights had been cancelled there on Wednesday, just over half of the normally scheduled services. Additional airline staff members had been added in the Frankfurt and Munich terminals and transit lounges to take care of waiting passengers, the airline said. 

Martin Riecken, a Lufthansa spokesman, said the fact that pilots had given more than the minimum 48-hour notice for their walkout afforded the airline ample time to notify passengers. The growing number of travellers who provide email addresses and mobile telephone numbers to airlines when they book tickets also enabled faster communication about the cancellations, he said. 

Nonetheless, some passengers arriving at European airports were unaware of the strike. Robert and Jennifer Beamon, newlywed Americans travelling through Europe for their honeymoon, arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport near Paris early Wednesday for a flight to Berlin, only to find that it had been cancelled. Lufthansa check-in workers rebooked them on an Air France flight leaving an hour later. 

Tabary Guy, a 48-year-old Frenchman flying to Munich on business, said he had received an email Tuesday from Lufthansa warning that his flight had been cancelled. He said the airline had changed his flight and that he was not expecting to be delayed or inconvenienced. 

The same could not be said for Barbara Woodlee, an American who was in Paris as part of a trip she arranged with her husband through Viking Cruises. “Viking did the booking so we were booked to Frankfurt, and Frankfurt to Philadelphia” on Lufthansa, she said. “I believe the strike has caused the flight cancellations, but because they did the booking and didn’t give us the documentation, we’re having a terrible time now,” she said. “Lufthansa is trying to find another airline,” she said. Frustrated travellers at Charles de Gaulle Airport were attended to by airline employees working in front of handbills that had been splashed on the walls reading, in part, “Lufthansa - There is no better way to get fired in CDG.”

Why the strike?

About 200 Lufthansa jobs at Charles de Gaulle airport are among the 3,500 positions that the airline said in 2012 that it planned to eliminate by the end of 2015. Riecken said the airline had reviewed its operations worldwide and had identified the Paris airport, along with Heathrow near London and Geneva International, as being among the locations where productivity and labour costs relative to passenger volumes were “out of proportion” with the average across Lufthansa’s network. 

The airline is in the process of contracting ground staff jobs in those locations to third-party handling agents who perform similar services for other big airlines. On Wednesday, that meant some of the Lufthansa ticket agents trying to help travellers navigate the strike were themselves expressing frustration. 

“I can be a supervisor, I can be an assistant, I can be a person at the gate, person at check-in, and other things,” said one French Lufthansa agent. “And now I’m just being fired.” Lufthansa has made plans to cancel as many as 3,800 flights over the strike period, which is expected to end at 11:59 pm Friday. But Helmut Tolksdorf, a spokesman for the airline, said that it was still hopeful that Vereinigung Cockpit, the union representing the majority of the airline’s 5,500 pilots, would agree before the end of the week to resume talks with management. “We still hope that we can go back to the negotiating table,” Tolksdorf said. 

Separately, German air traffic controllers, who have also threatened strike actions in the past, said on Wednesday that they had reached a deal with Deutsche Flugsicherung, a private company in charge of air traffic management across the country, to increase their pay by 1.8 per cent for 2014. 

The Lufthansa strike follows several months of negotiations over pay increases and benefits for pilots who retire early. 

Lufthansa pilots, whose average annual compensation stands at 181,000 Euros, or $250,000, are seeking raises of up to 10 per cent, while the airline is offering increases of just over 5 per cent. In the latest round of talks, the airline abandoned an earlier condition that would have linked future raises to improvements in the airline’s operating profit. 

Lufthansa is also seeking to raise the minimum age for early retirement for pilots by three years, to 61 from 58. Lufthansa is midway through a three-year restructuring drive aimed at eliminating $1.5 billion in costs by the end of next year. The carrier, like many of its full-service European peers, is striving to streamline operations to confront rising competition from budget airlines on European routes, as well as encroachment on their lucrative long-distance routes by Middle Eastern rivals. 

The pilots’ action follows a strike last week by service workers at Frankfurt Airport, which also caused minimal disruptions because most passengers had been forewarned. Unlike during last week’s labour action, only Lufthansa flights are affected this week, meaning that travellers might be able to switch to flights operated by other airlines. 

The airline had said it would also try to help passengers arrange train travel as an alternative, when possible. In Frankfurt on Wednesday, a long-distance train station that serves the airport was somewhat more crowded than usual. But there were no lines at a Lufthansa counter that serves passengers arriving or departing by rail. Meanwhile, Chen, the Chinese lighting executive, was left fuming. “There is no fast train to Katowice,” he said. “How do I get there?” 

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