April 5, 2008 / 5:02 AM / in 11 years

Chinese media acknowledge rare pilots' strike

BEIJING (Reuters) - Pilots flying for a subsidiary of China Eastern Airlines turned back midflight to southwestern Chinese airports early this week, in a rare strike to protest lower pay and other conditions, state media reported on Saturday.

Organized labor strikes are unusual in China, where there is only one legal, government-backed union.

Seventeen flights returned to their departure airports in Yunnan Province after takeoff on Monday and Tuesday, in a protest by pilots of China Eastern subsidiary Yunnan Airlines.

Pilots upset that they were limited to domestic routes and therefore shorter flying hours and lower pay than counterparts in the parent company were further discouraged to find they would be taxed heavily on overtime pay, local media reported this week.

State-run television reported the strike during the midday news on Saturday, as well as passengers’ complaints, after a week in which officials repeatedly denied any such strike had happened.

A China Eastern spokesman told Reuters earlier in the week that there had been no strike, and that some flights had simply taken off from Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, and then returned because of poor weather. Reached on Saturday, the spokesman had no further comment.

Leading financial magazine Caijing said on Friday that pilots would not be punished, citing an air administration official, after local media had reported the pilots would be banned for life.

Yunnan Airlines’ flight routes include many popular tourist destinations, including the mountain towns of Dali and Lijiang. The strike came a few days before a long weekend holiday.

A boom in air travel means China is increasingly short on pilots, while cut-throat competition between airlines keeps their profit margins tight.

Last month, pilots for Shanghai Airlines and the newly formed Wuhan East Star Airline coordinated “sick-ins”, in two separate incidents, media reported.

Reporting by Lucy Hornby; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani

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