Lufthansa pilots scared of losing their jobs began a crippling four-day strike on Monday, grounding two-thirds of flights at Europe’s biggest airline and all but emptying Germany’s normally busy airports.
The German flag carrier, already reeling from years of upheaval in the global airline sector, has predicted around 3,200 cancellations over the next four days, allowing customers to change bookings or giving them train tickets.
Worst hit were Lufthansa’s Frankfurt hub, Europe’s third biggest airport, and Munich. Also affected were Lufthansa Cargo, one of the world’s biggest freight carriers, and the firm’s low-cost subsidiary Germanwings.
The airline’s biggest strike since 2001 was expected to cost it around 65 million euros (89 million dollars), and experts warned of damage to the nascent recovery in the German economy, Europe’s largest.
With the strike announced last week and Lufthansa informing its passengers beforehand of cancellations, the usual Monday morning rush at Frankfurt airport failed to materialise as customers made other arrangements.
The huge departures board in the main terminal showed all but a smattering of scheduled Lufthansa flights as cancelled.
But many were caught unawares, like 55-year-old Silvia Martin and her husband from Strasbourg, who got up at 3:00 am (0200 GMT) to make it to Frankfurt on time, only to discover their plane to Venice was cancelled.
“No one told us last week. They are going to reimburse us for the flight, but not everything else like the guided visits we had booked. I am sickened,” she told AFP.
Last-ditch talks over the weekend between unions representing Lufthansa’s 4,000 pilots failed to achieve a breakthrough, and pilots began walking off the job at midnight (2300 GMT) on Sunday.
“Lufthansa management is not interested in dialogue, although it won’t admit it,” union spokesman Joerg Handwerg told AFP.
“We are open to talks without preconditions,” said Lufthansa spokesman Klaus Walther, adding that if the union “withdrew its catalogue of unrealistic and illegal claims ... a deal would be swiftly found.”
Cockpit is pressing for a 6.4-percent pay raise but more importantly it wants commitments from Lufthansa that pilots will not lose their jobs as the firm shifts passengers to cheaper foreign affiliates.
But Lufthansa says that this is “pure invention” and that “not one” pilot job has been outsourced.
European airlines have been fighting for survival for several years as they battle with the triple threat of low-cost airlines poaching customers, soaring high fuel costs and the worst global recession in decades.
Lufthansa has made a number of smaller acquisitions such as BMI, the former British Midland, and Swiss, the remnants of the bankrupt Swissair, and is cutting overheads by a billion euros.
But the pain remains. Sales slumped 13 per cent in the first nine months of 2009, the last figures available, with operating income down 76 per cent.
It warned a positive full year result was subject to “very considerable risks.”