Lufthansa hit by strike


BERLIN — Workers at Germany’s biggest airline, Lufthansa, walked off the job Monday to press for higher pay in the latest strikes to hit Europe’s biggest economy.

Ground personnel and flight crews walked out at midnight (2200 GMT Sunday) after members of the Verdi service sector union voted overwhelmingly last week for a strike.

The airline said flights were not seriously affected in the strike’s early hours.

“Lufthansa is still counting on regular flight operations and will inform on should irregularities occur,” it said in a statement. “Lufthansa has taken measures to minimise the impact on its passengers.”

On Friday, German rail company Deutsche Bahn said it was well-prepared to handle extra demand after working out a contingency plan with the airline.

But Verdi said travellers could soon feel the pinch.

“We want to begin by concentrating on technical services such as aircraft maintenance, and after that other parts of the company will be drawn in,” Verdi leader Erhard Ott told the Financial Times Deutschland newspaper.

The union wants a 9.8 percent pay hike over a year for around 50,000 workers, while Lufthansa has offered 6.7 percent over 21 months.

The newspaper Die Welt quoted Verdi as saying the strike would cost Lufthansa five million euros (7.9 million dollars) a day.

Company shares slumped 3.11 percent to 14.97 euros in early-morning trade in Frankfurt.

The industrial action comes as German labour steps up its demands for higher pay to keep pace with rising consumer prices, which grew 3.3 percent in Germany in June on a 12-month basis, the biggest increase since December 1993.

A study by the WSI economic research institute, traditionally close to Germany’s labour unions, showed that 900,000 employees staged warning strikes during the first six months of the year, hitting the metalworking, textiles, dairy and postal sectors.

The Lufthansa walk-outs could have a ripple effect because its ground personnel also service aircraft from around 50 other companies at major German airports.

Another possible victim could be German athletes due to compete at the Olympic Games in Beijing, which start August 8, since a large contingent was to leave on Wednesday.

Lufthansa would probably arrange for them to be carried by other airlines such as Air China, with which the German carrier has cooperative agreements.

The German flag carrier transports 150,000 people daily on average, and July is one of its busiest months.

Lufthansa boss Wolfgang Mayrhuber has said the carrier “cannot do any more” than its latest offer owing to “extremely limited economic room to manoeuvre.”

But unions point to Lufthansa’s operating profit last year of 1.38 billion euros (2.2 billion dollars), a figure it expects to reach again in 2008, as proof it can afford to meet workers’ demands.

Amid growing competition among carriers, and tough conditions because of soaring prices for jet fuel, Lufthansa has held its own and maintained its 2008 targets.

But the airline is also embroiled in separate talks with the Cockpit trade union, which represents pilots at its CityLine and Eurowings subsidiaries.

Warning strikes last week forced the cancellation of around 1,000 flights by those carriers.