Strikes in the air transport industry

Strike action in early 1997 in the French air transport industry is part of a wider pattern marked by deregulation and the restructuring of the larger airlines.

On 1 April 1997, the whole air transport sector, including cabotage(domestic flights within other member states), was officially opened to EC-wide competition. Cabotageno longer has to be the continuation of a flight originating outside a particular country. So nothing now remains of Air Inter's monopoly in France, which had already been severely challenged by the European Commission in 1994, following a complaint from TAT, now one of British Airways' French subsidiaries.

Air France Europe / Air France merger

1 April also signified an important step in the merger of Air France Europe (formerly Air Inter) and Air France, decided on at the beginning of the year by the company's managing director, Christian Blanc. Such reorganisation is representative of a general trend towards restructuring in the European air transport industry, out of which three main companies have emerged. These are Lufthansa (with 32.5 million passengers in 1995), British Airways (31.7 million) and Air France-Air Inter (with 29.4 million). Last autumn, British Airways bought out Air Liberté, after taking over TAT in France, and German BA in Germany.

The opening of internal markets to foreign competition has entailed a loss of market share for Air France Europe (Air Inter's new name) of up to 35% on the Paris-Marseille route, and 45% on the Paris-Nice route, as well as estimated losses of around FRF 1 billion for the last financial year. With the majority of costs (aircraft, fuel, airport rights) being identical for all companies, they can only compete on prices by reducing the payroll, whether directly, or indirectly, by modifying the status of employees.

The Air France /Air Inter merger has afforded the opportunity to realign the position of the 11,500 Air France Europe employees with the less favourable one enjoyed by the 36,400 Air France staff, whose salaries, for instance, have not risen since 1993. A loss of salary in the region of FRF 1,000 per month for ground staff, and 15% for pilots, will probably result. The compensation offered by the management (eight index points, the equivalent of FRF 300 per month) gave rise to an agreement that neither the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail) nor the SUD (Solidaire Unitaire Démocratique) airline section (formerly SNPIT, Syndicat National du Personnel assurant un service Air Inter) signed. The amalgamation of the two companies' head offices may well lead to staff cuts, and the unions have demanded that the more than 900 people put on part-time work be returned to full-time employment. They also rejected new work schedules. The fact that a leasing agreement was adopted so as to accelerate the merger has been interpreted by unions as a means of "getting round legislation providing for measures which protect staff in the case of takeover".


Industrial action got underway with a warning "wildcat" strike called on 9 February by pilots' unions (USPNT- Union Syndicale du Personel Navigant Technique, SNPL-Syndicat National des Pilotes de ligne, SPIT- Syndicat des pilotes d'Air Inter and SNPNAC- Syndicat National du Personnel Navigant Commercial) with little notice given (at 17.00 for the following morning). Another strike was then announced for 23-26 March. In both cases, unions intended the action as a protest against Air France's decision to introduce a dual salary scale for the next three years : 450 new pilots will be recruited at a salary of FRF 220,000 per year, 33% lower than the present starting salary.

For the group's managing director, such a strike constitutes a breach of the "moral contract" binding him to Air France's employees since the 1994 workforce referendum, which enabled him to introduce his recovery programme. Christian Blanc used the threat of his resignation to tip the balance. The pilots' unions (SNPL, SPAC- Syndicat des Pilotes de l'Aviation Civile and SNOMAC-Syndicat National des Officiers Mécaniciens de l'Aviation Civile) then decided to suspend their strike call for two months. The management congratulated itself that the unions' hard line had not succeeded, and henceforth considered the principle of a dual salary scale as an established practice, even if its terms had to be adapted, due to an extra month's extension before the deadline.

However, industrial action took off again on the 28 and 29 March, with a strike emanating from a CGT-Sud (airlines) branch based at Orly-Ouest airport, representing catering staff, runway assistants, check-in and ground staff. Not a single plane left the airport on those two days. Then, despite further stoppages and another strike call by three navigators' unions, most flights ran as normal on 30 and 31 March, with a few interruptions on the morning of 1 April. At the same time, talks were beginning with the management, with no common ground being found for a timetable. Air France's management then threatened to punish all illegal strikes (these being defined as any called without the five days' notice required by law), and took out an injunction.

This legal onslaught provoked further action by ground staff on 4 April, this time with a wider range of unions in support : the CGT, SUD aérien, CFTC (Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens) and SNMSAC (Syndicat National des Mécaniciens au Sol de l'Aviation Civile). Planes were delayed and were only able to take off under police protection, officers having been sent to prevent the invasion of runways. Two days later, the courts in Créteil (the judicial district in which Orly lies) refused to grant management an injunction on the issue of the length of notice to be given before strikes. The unions interpreted this ruling as a repudiation of the management, and recognition that they were not subject to the five-day regulation before the the merger date, while the management considered that "it had not lost its case."

The industrial action was accompanied by sporadic stoppages by ground staff at the Aéroport de Paris (ADP) who were also protesting against restructuring linked to the opening of European routes to competition. It was to start again, with unions in the Air Liberté-TAT group giving notice of a two-day strike, from 9 April, which may be extended. These unions have been up against the same leasing scheme as those at Air France since 1 April, and they are accusing Marc Rochet, the group's managing director, of having broken the dialogue on the future company's prospects. (Michel Husson, IRES)

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