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AIRLINE MADNESS IN EUROPE
By Joe Brancatelli
After a brutal spate of winter weather, airline travel in Europe is now being plagued by strikes, this time in Spain and Germany.
Cabin staff incensed at Iberia for creating a low-cost, non-union subsidiary are mounting a series of one-day strikes. In Frankfurt, ground workers and Fraport, the airport authority, are at odds over contracts after management rejected a mediator's settlement proposal. Then another union of ground workers at many other German airports got in a contract dispute, too. The double whammy of woe means real misery for travelers using flights of the Oneworld (Iberia) and Star (Lufthansa) alliances.
Here is how we've been covering events as they unfolded. And, as usual, this is presented blog and Pinter-play style: The most recent report is at the top, so you have to read backward for the full impact of events.
4/5/12, 8PM ET, THURSDAY
GOOD NEWS AND BAD NEWS FROM EUROPE
Good news from Europe: The public-workers contract has been settled, which means the Verdi union won't be mounting any more strikes that could kick the bottom from the schedule of Lufthansa. Bad news: Rather than negotiate with its pilots, Iberia is trying to sue the union into submission. Meanwhile, the union is going ahead with its threat to mount 30 days of strikes between next week and mid-July. Iberia has already posted cancellation notices on its home page for flights on April 9, April 13 and April 16.
3/29/12, 8PM ET, THURSDAY
GENERAL STRIKE STRIKES DOWN IBERIA'S SCHEDULE
A general strike in Spain today led Iberia to cancel more than 200 flights, about 60 percent of its global schedule. The strike, called to protest the Spanish government's austerity budgets, was nationwide and not particularly aimed at Iberia. The new strikes planned by the airline's pilots, in protest of the company's decision to launch a non-union subsidiary called Iberia Express, begin on April 9.
3/27/12, 8:30PM ET, TUESDAY
STRIKES HIT GERMANY AND SPAIN...AGAIN
Here we go again. Life in the air is pretty bad again in huge chunks of Europe.
First, Germany. A new strike by ground workers at Germany's major airports wiped out hundreds of flights. Part of a national job action by the Verdi public-services union, the strike did the most damage to Lufthansa's schedule at its Frankfurt and Munich hubs. The German airline managed to operate all of its transatlantic service, but flights around Germany and Europe were heavily disrupted.
This strike has nothing to do with an earlier series of job actions specifically aimed at Fraport, the operator of Frankfurt Airport. Worse, Verdi says that further strikes are possible.
Next, Spain. A general strike of workers throughout the country on Thursday (March 29) will shut down most of Spain's public-transportation systems and the vast majority of the schedule at Iberia. The airline has posted a list of cancellations on its home page and it includes some transatlantic service. If you're scheduled to use Iberia on Thursday, check with the airline or another Oneworld carrier for your options. But this one gets worse, too. As you'll recall, Iberia's pilots have already struck the airline repeatedly this year. They've now called for 30 more days of strikes between April 9 and mid-July. The battle is over the creation of non-union Iberia Express, but don't be fooled. Iberia is now part of IAG, the pan-European group that also owns British Airways. The head of IAG? Willie Walsh, who took a series of nasty strikes over several years at British Airways. Ain't it funny how strikes always follow around certain airline executives? Just sayin' ...
3/22/12, 8PM ET, THURSDAY
ONE SETTLEMENT IN GERMANY, ANOTHER STRIKE ON TAP
The original dispute between ground workers at Frankfurt Airport and the airport's operating authority has been settled with a new contract. Strikes crippled Frankfurt-based Lufthansa for several days earlier this year (see below). But we're not out of the woods yet. Another union, Verdi, has called a strike for Tuesday morning at several German airports, including Frankfurt and Munich.
2/29/12, 11:45AM ET, WEDNESDAY
JUDGE RULES 'LEGAL' STRIKE IS AN 'ILLEGAL' JOB ACTION
A German judge has halted the strike by Frankfurt airport ground workers. To be honest, the nuances of German labor law escapes me, so I can't fully explain why the judge ruled the strike itself legal and simultaneously an illegal industrial action. I guess the ruling reads better in its original German, to quote the late Molly Ivins in a different context.
It does mean, however, that striking ground workers will have to resume work and not extend the strike until tomorrow morning (March 1) local time, as originally scheduled.
The strike has already taken its toll, however. Besides last week's raft of cancellations, there were 144 cancellations and 557 delays on Monday, 176 cancellations and 356 cancellations on Tuesday and 155 cancellations and 157 delays so far today. About 1,300 flights a day use Frankfurt, Europe's third-largest hub. (As usual, these statistics come from the numbers mavens at FlightStats.com.) Since the order came down late in the day Frankfurt time, expect some scattered cancellations and delays tomorrow (Thursday, March 1) as Lufthansa and other carriers get their planes and crews back into positions.
Meanwhile, Iberia today cancelled more than a third of its approximately 350 daily flights, most to or from its Madrid hub. It's the result of another job action by Iberia crews protesting the creation of the non-union Iberia Express.
Finally, here at home, there have been delays and scattered cancellations at Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago/O'Hare due to some winter weather, which, as you know, has been a rarity this winter. And the bad conditions are heading East. That might mean some late-in-the-day problems from Washington up to New York.
2/25/12, 7:45PM ET, SATURDAY
A LOUSY WEEK AHEAD IN EUROPE'S SKIES
The travel situation in Europe has worsened substantially now that contract talks between ground workers and Fraport, the agency that operates Frankfurt Airport, have collapsed. Again.
As I warned you earlier this week, the "good" news that negotiations had resumed was illusory. There is a lot of distrust between these two sides. The blah-blah-blah on this breakdown: Fraport says the workers want too much. The ground workers claim Fraport's latest offer was even lower than its last proposal before the airport turned down a mediator's suggested settlement.
Bottom line: The ground workers will resume their work stoppage beginning at 8pm Frankfurt time tomorrow (Sunday, February 26). This time, they say the strike is due to last until 4am local time on Thursday, March 1.
What this means for flights to, from and through Frankfurt, Europe's third-largest hub and the primary continental gateway for Lufthansa and the Star Alliance? Lufthansa says it won't post its cancellation list until Sunday afternoon local time. In the previous five days of strikes (between February 16 and 22 with a weekend break), more than 1,000 flights were cancelled at Frankfurt, most of them operated by Lufthansa and its subsidiaries. On normal days, about 1,300 flights operate at Frankfurt.
Meanwhile, because one strike is never quite enough, the next pilot's work stoppage at Iberia is due on Wednesday, February 29. A link to the initial list of Iberia cancellations is posted on its home page (http://www.iberia.com), but a warning: During the 12 days of strikes so far this year, Iberia has cancelled long-haul and transatlantic flights with little or no advance notification.
2/24/12, 8:15AM ET, FRIDAY
WHERE YOU GOING? MAYBE NOT BARCELONA OR MADRID.
Today's pilots strike at Iberia has already wiped out 100 of the airline's approximately 325 daily flights. So far, it looks like no transatlantic flights have been dumped. The carrier's intra-Europe schedule has been shredded, however, which is not good news if you were hoping to fly beyond Madrid. Next up, another one-day strike on Wednesday, February 29.
2/23/12, 9:45AM ET, THURSDAY
AFTER THE STRIKE, MORE DUMPED FLIGHTS
Fraport, which operates Frankfurt Airport, and ground workers are talking again. As promised, the union representing ground workers called off its strike at 9pm last night (Wednesday) local time. But the cancellations go on. At least 170 of the approximately 1,250 flights planned for Frankfurt today have been dumped. The vast majority of cancellations belong to Lufthansa, the major player at FRA. Lufthansaestimates that it has lost about 10 million euros due to the Frankfurt problems, but says it will operate a full schedule on Friday.
Of course, don't expect the situation to end. The strike started last week after Fraport rejected a mediator's settlement proposal. Both sides are digging in for more long negotiations and there is no guarantee of success.
And now, we turn back to Spain, where the next one-day strike from Iberia pilots is due tomorrow, February 24. Iberia says it will cancel 107 flights tomorrow, about a third of its capacity. The airline is also pre-cancelling 131 flights on Wednesday, February 29, which is the next planned one-day strike of pilots. Not counting the upcoming strikes, Iberia has faced 10 work stoppages this year as pilots and other cabin crews protest the airline's decision to create a non-union discount operation.
2/22/12, 3:45PM ET, WEDNESDAY
REPORT FROM THE FRANKFURT FRONT
An unedited dispatch from a JoeSentMe member lost in the complexities of today's ground workers strike at Frankfurt Airport: "Here we sit in FRA's Byzantine airport waiting for what we hope will be our last flight of day. We had a lovely week in Nice celebrating the carnival and I have been dutifully checking with Lufthansa regarding flights.
"At 7am this morning in Nice, I checked both Lufthansa and [Star Alliance partner] United Airlines for any flight cancellations and was relieved to discover that all of our flights were marked ON TIME. We arrived at the Nice airport two hours before the flight and only then did we discover that our flight had been cancelled. They tried to reroute [home to Washington] us via London, which didn't work, [and] Munich, which didn't work. Finally, they hopscotched us via Geneva and FRA, where we now wait for a flight that will get us home five hours later than scheduled.
"The real concern I have is that neither Lufthansa nor United Airlines has done anything to try to make things a bit smoother. I thought with elite status that they might have gone out of their way to get us better flights or at least decent seats, but nothing was done. And, of course, they each blame the other. At least we have access to the lounge and that will take the edge off of sitting next to the toilets for the nine-hour flight to Washington/Dulles. They couldn't even get us in Economy Plus!"
2/22/12, 11:45AM ET, WEDNESDAY
FINALLY, SOME GOOD NEWS TO REPORT...
First, the good news. After announcing plans to extend their strike into the weekend, ground staff at Frankfurt Airport are ending their work stoppage at 9pm this evening local time. Talks are resuming between the union and Fraport, the airport operating authority. But don't be too optimistic. This strike started after Fraport rejected a mediator's settlement proposal, so this could be a difficult negotiation. There doesn't seem to be a lot of good will on either side.
Meanwhile, the strike has continued to take its toll on airport operations in Frankfurt, the key hub of Lufthansa and the Star Alliance and one of the busiest airports in the world. According to FlightStats, 161 flights have been cancelled and 263 delayed so far today. On Tuesday, a total of 187 were cancelled and 242 delayed. Monday's numbers were substantially worse: 230 cancels and 330 delays.
Over in Spain, where pilots for Iberia are mounting a series of one-day strikes, the next job action is scheduled for Friday, February 24, and Wednesday, February 29. On Monday, the most recent strike day, Iberia cancelled a huge chunk of its schedule, including some transatlantic flights. The airline has already posted a preliminary list of cancellations for Friday and next Wednesday.
2/20/12, 10AM ET, MONDAY
THE STRIKES GO ON AND ON AND ON...
There's only bad news and worse news from Europe. Ground workers at Frankfurt Airport have announced that the one-day strike today (Monday) will extend until at least 11pm tomorrow (Tuesday, February 21) local time. Naturally, delays and cancellations are piling up. According to FlightStats, about 200 Lufthansa and Lufthansa CityLine flights have been cancelled systemwide. Lufthansa, of course, is the big player at Frankfurt. Overall today, FlightStats.com says that more than 200 flights have been cancelled and nearly 300 delayed at Frankfurt. Worse, the dispute between Fraport, the airport operators, and the ground staff shows no sign of ending.
The "good" news, such as may be? Lufthansa says that it has operated, and plans to operate, all of its transatlantic flights. So you will get to Frankfurt if that is your destination. If you are using Frankfurt as a transit hub, Lufthansa says that it is trying to rebook people before their U.S. departure over its Munich hub or via other cities. It also says that no cities on its route map have been wiped out by the strike. It continues to serve all of its destinations, albeit with reduced frequencies.
In Spain, the pilot strike at Iberia has led to 117 cancellations today. That means at least a third of Iberia's schedule today has been wiped out. The next strike is scheduled for Friday, February 24.
2/19/12, 11:45PM ET, SUNDAY
THIS WON'T BE A FUN WEEK IN EUROPE
Job actions and schedule disruptions will impact your travel in Europe this week.
First, in Frankfurt, ground workers plan two days of strikes against Fraport AG, the firm that operates the airport. The strikes are due Monday (February 20) and Wednesday (February 22) and will run for 24 hours from 5 a.m. local time. About 300 of 1,300 flights were cancelled on Friday during the first day of strike action, so expect the same kinds of problems this week.
Now to the complicated situation in Spain. Iberia pilots have planned three one-day strikes, on February 20 (Monday), February 24 (Friday) and February 29 (Wednesday). The strikes will affect flights throughout Spain, not just Iberia's hub in Madrid. Expect widespread delays and last-minute cancellations if last week's one-day pilot strike is any guide.
There were large demonstrations throughout Spain today, protesting austerity measures and the worst unemployment rate in the European Union. And that will be followed by a transit workers strike in Barcelona that will coincide with the World Mobile Congress convention from February 27-March 1.
As any of you who have traveled in Barcelona know, cabs are hard to find at the best of times. So a big mobile-phone conference and a public-transit strike at the same time are likely to bring Barcelona to a standstill. Not to mention having lots of folks texting their frustration. Which could bring cellphone networks to a standstill, too.
2/17/12, 6:45PM ET, FRIDAY
JUST ANOTHER FRANTIC FRIDAY
It was a miserable day to fly in Europe as a one-day strike by pilots at Iberia knocked out about a third of the airline's schedule. Included in the cancellations were some transatlantic flights. Meanwhile, in Frankfurt, a dispute between ground workers and Fraport, the airport authority, led to a slew of cancellations and long delays. Lufthansa, the leading carrier at Frankfurt, did manage to operate all of its long-haul and transatlantic flights, however. Oh, and in case you think this was a one-off event: Strikes are scheduled to resume next week both at Frankfurt and at Iberia.
2/13/12, 6PM ET, MONDAY
JUST ANOTHER MANIC MONDAY IN SPAIN
The latest in a series of one-day strikes by Iberia employees--this time the pilots--grounded about 40 percent of the carrier's flights today. If you were on Iberia or flying them via the Oneworld Alliance partners American Airlines or British Airways, your day was filled with annoyance, delays and well-chosen Latin swear words.
2/8/12, 1:45PM ET, WEDNESDAY
AIRLINE MADNESS HITS EUROPE
Pity the business travelers with European stops on their agendas. Not only do they have to deal with an especially bad bit of winter weather, but they also have to confront airlines beset with labor issues and bankruptcy. Not to mention the carriers that are folding. If you want to brief yourself on the background, read my Portfolio column.
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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.