Air France pilots dig in despite offer to scrap low-cost plans

25th September 2014, Comments 0 comments

Air France pilots refused to budge Thursday after management offered to scrap plans to expand its low-cost subsidiary, as their strike became the longest ever at Europe's second-largest flag carrier.

The striking pilots brushed off calls to return to the skies, leaving half the fleet grounded for an 11th day running, as they sought to push management even further at talks later Thursday.

The company proposed "the immediate withdrawal" of plans to expand Transavia Europe on the continent, but said it would pursue the development of the low-cost airline in France.

It called for pilots to return to work "immediately", to end a dispute that has crippled the airline at a cost of 20 million euros ($25 million) a day.

But the main pilots union SNPL said it had made a "counter-offer" that would be discussed as talks resume later Thursday.

Many Air France pilots, who earn up to 250,000 euros a year, are angry at the plans to develop Transavia, which currently serves holiday destinations across Europe and the Mediterranean.

They fear management will eventually seek to replace Air France flights with services operated by Transavia, whose pilots earn considerably less.

- 'Into the red' -

The withdrawal of plans to expand Transavia will come as a blow to the airline's efforts to be more competitive in the crowded and changing European skies, increasingly dominated by no-frills airlines.

The MEDEF employers association said the conflict at Air France -- 16 percent state-owned -- encapsulated the malaise gripping the country's crisis-hit economy.

The union action is "again dragging a company into the red," said MEDEF vice-president Jean-Francois Pillard.

"For those who want to invest or travel in France, this does not contribute, at an already extremely difficult time, to improving the image of the country," he said.

Air France has already implemented an ambitious restructuring plan to reduce costs and improve efficiency.

"Low-cost airlines now represent between 25 and 45 percent of air traffic in Europe, depending on the country," said Didier Brechemier, an aviation expert at consultants Roland Berger.

Irish low-cost airline Ryanair will soon expand its fleet to 400, which would take it above Air France's stable of 350 aircraft.

"With competitors like that it's not hard to see why Ryanair is the fastest growing airline in Europe," company boss Michael O'Leary said of Air France's offer to put expansion plans on ice.

- Ball in pilots' court -

Air France said the proposal "allows us to end this destructive conflict" which on Thursday overtook the record for the longest pilots' strike at the airline, of 10 days in 1998.

"With the withdrawal of the Transavia Europe plan, there is no longer any reason to strike because there can be no fear of outsourcing," the airline said in a statement signed by Air France-KLM chief executive Alexandre de Juniac and his Air France counterpart Frederic Gagey.

"We call on the striking pilots to return to work immediately."

The government welcomed Air France's proposal and said it was "now the responsibility of the pilots to end the strike".

While proposing to put the European expansion on hold, Air France said it would maintain its plans to develop Transavia France "in competitive economic conditions".

"Our Transavia project is 100 percent a project for France," the airline said.

It promised that the project would create more than 1,000 jobs in France, including 250 pilots' positions.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls has warned that the strike was putting Air France's future in danger.

Not all the airline's employees back the strike.

Hundreds of Air France workers, including pilots, rallied on Wednesday demanding that the striking pilots get back to work.

"I don't understand the intention of my fellow pilots, I don't understand why they are striking against growth," said Jerome Cormouls, captain of an Airbus A320.

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© 2014 AFP

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