FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Lufthansa (LHAG.DE) was virtually grounded on Monday, Germany's largest airline cancelling nearly all of its flights because of a second strike in a month over workers' pay.
Lufthansa scrapped 1,700 flights, leaving only about 30 running, after all-day strike action was announced at Germany's biggest airports, including Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg.
Unlike other strikes over the past couple of years, Lufthansa even said it was cancelling the majority of its long-haul flights.
"That's 150,000 passengers we are unable to carry today," Lufthansa personnel executive Stefan Lauer said, standing in front of a departure board at Frankfurt showing a swath of cancelled flights.
Germany's airports and railways have been hit with repeated strike action over the past two years, from pilots to tower staff, airfield workers, security staff and train drivers.
The emergence of smaller trade unions and years of pay restraint have resulted in tense negotiations and the increased number of strikes.
"We want to call on the union to end this madness. Germany's transport sector is becoming the laughing stock of Europe," Lauer said.
Frankfurt airport, Europe's third largest, was largely calm and free of long queues on Monday morning, in contrast to last month's five-hour strike.
The high number of cancellations on Monday meant that many passengers had either stayed home or had not been able to fly to the airport, which mostly serves transfer passengers.
Horst Hoffart, 45, was one of the lucky few whose flight was still taking off. "There have been too many strikes recently," he said.
Guenter Grabherr, a 54-year-old Austrian travelling with his wife to Tobago on rival airline Condor (TCG.L), said they had expected a German company like Lufthansa to be more reliable. "It's terrible for the passengers who just want to get away," he said.
WHISTLES AND BANNERS
Monday's strike action affects all Germany's major airports, including Munich, Hamburg and Berlin. Striking workers comprised cabin crew and ground staff at Lufthansa Cargo, Lufthansa Technik, Lufthansa Systems, catering unit LSG Sky Chefs and ground crews.
In Frankfurt alone, 2,000 Lufthansa employees started the industrial action at 11:00 p.m. EDT. They marched through Terminal 1 blowing whistles and waving flags during the morning, chanting that they were being "robbed" of pay.
Trade union Verdi, which represents 33,000 workers, is asking for a 5.2 percent pay rise and job guarantees. It hopes the strikes will put pressure on management to improve an offer it has described as "scandalous".
The extent of the strike is unusual, given that the sides are still in the early stages of negotiations. Short warning strikes are a common tactic in German pay talks, but Lufthansa has complained that full-day action is out of proportion.
The airline, in the middle of a restructuring program, made a new offer last week to raise salaries by 1.2 percent from October and a further 0.5 percent a year later, in a deal that would run for 29 months and would not contain job guarantees.
Non-German passengers at Frankfurt were unaware of the reasons behind the strike and interested only in getting on a flight. "I want my Rome vacation," said one American waiting in the rebooking queue.
Lufthansa estimates that the strike will cost it tens of millions of euros.
Its shares, however, were up 2 percent at 0931 GMT, leaving market watchers bemused.
"I can only think that the market is hoping that Lufthansa will take a hard line in the negotiations and that any pay increase will not be as high as that demanded by Verdi," one Frankfurt-based trader said.
(Additional reporting by Reuters TV and Daniela Pegna; Editing by Mark Potter and David Goodman)