Striking Lufthansa pilots to suspend their walkout

By Juergen Baetz and George Frey Associated Press

FRANKFURT — A four-day walkout by Lufthansa pilots that upended travel plans for 10,000 people will be cut short after the airline and their union agreed to suspend the strike and hold talks, both said today.

Both sides reached an agreement after a two-hour long hearing at a Frankfurt labor court, Cockpit union spokesman Joerg Handwerg told The Associated Press.

Lufthansa confirmed the decision and said the walkout would end at midnight (2300 GMT, 3 p.m. PST).

“The parties agreed in front of the court that the strike is to be suspended through the 8th of March,” Lufthansa spokesman Andreas Bartels told AP, adding the 4,000 pilots will return to work Tuesday.

“They’re going to go back to work tomorrow (Tuesday),” he said. “I can’t say when we are back to normal operations. It takes a lot of time.”

Around 10,000 Lufthansa and Germanwings passengers were upended by the strike, which began at 12:01 a.m. today (2301 GMT, 3:01 p.m. PST Sunday).

Handwerg said the strike was suspended until March 9, pending the resumption of talks between both sides. Pilots for Lufthansa Cargo and the low-budget subsidiary, Germanwings, were also taking part in the strike.

“We are happy with the agreement because Lufthansa now has to resume negotiations without preconditions,” Handwerg said.

Lufthansa pilots announced the walkout last week over their concerns that cheaper crews from Lufthansa’s smaller airlines in other countries could eventually replace them.

Meanwhile, thousands of travelers scrambled to find flights, trains, hotel rooms or rental cars today after Lufthansa pilots began the planned four-day walkout over job security that grounded at least 800 flights.

The Lufthansa strike disrupted plans for 10,000 passengers worldwide but that was just the tip of the travel chaos iceberg.

Also today, five unions representing French air traffic controllers announced a four-day strike of their own starting Tuesday that is forcing the cancelation of hundreds of flights at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports. France’s DGAC aviation authority ordered airlines to cancel 50 percent of the flights at Orly and 25 percent of the flights at Charles de Gaulle.

British Airways PLC, meanwhile, faced a renewed threat of cabin crew strikes, after the Unite union announced today that most of its members had voted in favor of a walkout.

And Eurostar — the main train alternative to planes between Paris, Brussels and London — suffered yet another embarrassing train failure.

Lufthansa, Europe’s second-biggest airline by sales, said many long-haul flights to the U.S., including New York and Denver, were canceled but it was still running many domestic flights and short-haul routes across Europe.

Other flights to the U.S. — including Newark, Dallas and Chicago — were running as scheduled today, as were flights to destinations in Africa, South America and Asia.

The airline had estimated the strike could cost it some euro25 million ($34 million) per day.

In London, Unite, Britain’s biggest labor union, said after the vote that it was not announcing any strike date and its members will meet Thursday to discuss the ballot result before deciding on a strike date.

A previous strike threat by BA cabin crew — planned for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays — was canceled only after the airline obtained an emergency court injunction blocking it.

A Eurostar Paris-to London train, meanwhile, inexplicably broke down in southern England late Sunday, plunging more than 700 passengers into darkness and forcing them to climb down ladders onto the track to a replacement train. They arrived in London about 2:30 a.m. today, more than four hours late.

Last week, Eurostar was sharply criticized by independent investigators for its response when several trains broke down before Christmas in the Channel Tunnel, disrupting travel plans for tens of thousands of people.

Tony Concil of the International Air Transit Association in Geneva noted that the global airline industry is still losing money and still needs to cut operating costs.

“The industry lost $11 billion in 2009 and will probably lose $5.6 billion in 2010,” he told AP. “The emphasis at airlines is saving cash, managing capacity as effectively as possible, and cutting costs.”