Europe’s Pilots Are Stepping Up Demands

 - August 14, 2018, 10:37 AM
Passengers might see cancelations or delays if KLM pilots strike because management of the Dutch airline made "insufficient" binding commitments on work conditions and pay by August 17.

This story was updated on August 20.

Mirroring the example of their colleagues at Air France, Brussels Airlines, and Ryanair, which all staged work stoppages in recent months, KLM pilots threatened to strike after management of the Dutch airline made insufficient binding commitments on work conditions and pay by August 17.

“With the rejection of [our] final proposal by KLM management we have reached an impasse in establishing a new collective labor agreement,” the Dutch Airline Pilots Association (VNV) said. Management and representatives of the VNV have been locked in talks over a new collective labor agreement (CLA) for almost a year and VNV members have rejected an earlier agreement in principle due to issues relating to restoring the too-high work pressure and the time frame of hiring new pilots. The airline described VNV’s rebuttal of its improved proposal as “incomprehensible” and pointed out that its last proposal, while not fully complying with the last bid presented by the VNV, “better complies with the pilots’ wishes to reduce work pressure and improve work-life balance.”

VNV did not disclose when it would strike or for how long but said it is “preparing actions.” 

A similar disagreement over pay and work pressure combined with a lack of progress in months-long negotiations prompted Brussels Airlines pilots to call a two-day strike in May. On August 9, management of the Belgian Lufthansa subsidiary and trade union representatives reached a deal on some 20 measures to enhance pilots’ work-life balance, including an improvement of the current duty and rest time rosters. Talks on the trickier issues of higher pay and seasonal crews continue, and if no accord is reached by November 30 pilots will reconsider industrial action.

Ryanair last Friday saw pilots across five countries—Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, and The Netherlands—walk out in protest of pay, base transfers, contracts, and terms, forcing the Dublin-based low-cost carrier to cancel 17 percent of its daily schedule during the summer peak season. The cross-border coordinated strike is the most severe industrial action in the low-cost carrier’s history and follows strikes by cabin crew in Belgium, Italy, Portugal, and Spain in July.

The dispute is particularly confrontational in Ireland, where Ryanair responded to five one-day strikes by a group of its pilot members of the Irish Airline Pilots’ Association by issuing redundancy notices to more than 100 pilots and 200 cabin crew and trimming the Dublin-based fleet next winter from 30 to 24. Aircraft will be moved to Poland. Four days of talks on a resolution of the dispute with the help of an independent mediator ended Thursday without agreement and the parties are expected to resume talks the week of August 20.

After 15 days of industrial action in the first six months by Air France pilots opposing long-standing proposals to cut costs and increase productivity, representatives are now turning their resistance to the nomination of a non-French national—Air Canada COO and president airlines Benjamin Smith—as CEO of Air France-KLM and chairman of Air France to replace Jean-Marc Janaillac, who resigned in May after two years on the job. The pilots’ industrial action, which cost the airline an estimated €335 million, roughly the list price of an Airbus A350-1000, contributed to Janaillac's resignation.

“It's a question of sovereignty,” said Philippe Evain, president of the Air France branch of French pilots’ union SNPL, in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper early last week. “I am an Air France pilot but also a French national and that we were unable to find a French CEO for Air France, I find it a shame.”  He stressed he did not object per se to the nomination of a foreigner as CEO of Air France-KLM, but nonetheless described the appointment of Smith as a move to “please the Americans and the Chinese.” Delta Air Lines and China Eastern Airlines each own 8.8 percent of Air France-KLM, but the French state is the largest single shareholder with a stake of about 14 percent. 

“The head of Air France-KLM should be a leader familiar with the specifics of the French social dialogue, who masters the details of the European air market, including the competition between low-cost and legacy carriers. It's very different from what happens in Canada,” according to Evain.

“It is inconceivable that Air France, a French company since 1933, would get a foreigner as CEO,” nine Air France unions representing pilots and other staff said in a joint statement just before the August 16 meeting of the Franco-Dutch group’s board, which as expected, named Smith to replace Janaillac. The unions, deliberately confusing Air France with Air France-KLM, said the candidacy of a non-French national was being pushed by a “competing industrial group or (not to cite Delta Air Lines).”

Other countries and governments, they added, “show fierce protectionism when it comes to their airline. How in this context, when we know the importance of the economic benefits of a carrier to the rest of society, can Air France be left in foreign hands?” The labor groups will meet on August 27 to decide on “the actions to get the end of the pay freeze which we have been demanding for months.”