* Pilots hold 13th strike since April
* Short- and medium-haul to be targeted on Friday
* Airline fears long-term damage to reputation
(Adds Lufthansa comment)
By Victoria Bryan
FRANKFURT, March 19 A pilots' strike grounded
more than half of Lufthansa's lucrative long-haul
flights on Thursday, the latest action to pile pressure on
management in a protracted row over early retirement benefits
and cost cuts.
Lufthansa is trying to cut costs to levels nearer those of
its rivals as it is squeezed by budget carriers Ryanair
and easyJet on European routes and by airlines such as
Turkish and Emirates on long-haul flights.
Including Thursday's strike, pilots have walked out 13 times
since last April, affecting almost one million passengers. Other
Lufthansa employees are starting to worry the row could damage
the business for good.
"We fortunately have very loyal customers, but if this
continues in the long run and we aren't able to offer the
reliability we need, then it could become a problem for our
customers," Peter Gerber, chief executive of Lufthansa Cargo,
Lufthansa Cargo said all its freight-only flights would
operate on Thursday, but the strike would affect the freight it
carries in the holds of long-haul passenger planes.
Lufthansa cancelled 84 of its planned 153 long-haul flights
for Thursday, affecting 18,000 passengers, a spokesman said.
Pilots' union Vereinigung Cockpit (VC) is extending the
strike to short- and medium-haul Lufthansa flights on Friday and
said it would strike again on Saturday on long-haul and cargo
Lufthansa said it was cancelling 700 short- and medium-haul
flights on Friday, equivalent to about half its scheduled
flights, while another 90 were being cancelled because of a
strike by Italian air traffic controllers.
It said it would still be able to fly about a third of its
scheduled flights on Saturday, but said the additional strike
represented a new escalation of the conflict, which it feared
was having a long-term impact on the reputation of the company.
Pilot strikes cost Lufthansa more than 200 million euros
($213 million) in lost operating profit last year. Experience so
far shows that bookings drop sharply after a strike is
announced, stay low for a couple of days and then recover fairly
quickly, a Lufthansa spokeswoman said.
However, continuing strikes could force corporate travel
managers to push travellers onto other airlines, especially as
Lufthansa mainly serves transfer passengers who could just as
easily fly via hubs in London, Amsterdam or the Gulf,
independent aviation consultant John Strickland said.
"The only winners are Lufthansa's competitors, whether
long-haul or short-haul," Strickland said, adding that it was
still crucial for Lufthansa management to push through
structural changes to keep up with rivals.
The row involves early retirement benefits that VC wants to
keep but which Lufthansa wants to change for new starters.
The pilots also want Lufthansa to enter joint mediation on
other outstanding issues, such as pay and bringing costs down on
flights to tourist destinations. Lufthansa has rejected the
($1 = 0.9384 euros)
(Reporting by Victoria Bryan and Peter Maushagen; Editing by
Georgina Prodhan, David Clarke and Mark Trevelyan)