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A CASCADE OF CHAOS AT LUFTHANSA
By Joe Brancatelli
More than a year of negotiations between Lufthansa and flight attendants floundered late in August. The result? A series of rolling strikes that has been making life on the road miserable for international business travelers.
At the heart of the conflict between Lufthansa and flight attendants, whose union is called UFO, is the airline's desire to slash costs. It has capped its wage offer at 3.5 percent and wants the right to begin changing work rules. The union wants a 5 percent raise and protection for its members against job losses as Lufthansa mixes and matches operations in its huge network, which includes Swiss International, Austrian Airlines and Brussels Airlines.
Here's how we've covered the impact of Lufthansa's conflict on our travels. As usual, the latest item is at the top. Read up from the bottom, like a blog, for details as they unfolded in real time.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 8, 12:30PM ET
NOT WITH A BANG, BUT WITH COMPLICATIONS
Ongoing strikes of flight attendants against Lufthansa have probably ended until around the Christmas travel period, when things might get ugly again. But, for now, all is copacetic. Lufthansa and the union have both made concessions.
Lufthansa has apparently agreed to stop hiring part-time workers to service its expansion in Berlin. Those employees will be offered permanent positions. Ironically, the new Berlin airport, which fueled Lufthansa's Berlin expansion, looks like it will be delayed yet again. It was originally due last year, then seemed on track to open this spring. Then it got bumped to next month and then next March. Now it will be at least late October of 2013 before we see Brandenburg replace Tegel.
For its part, the union has agreed to submit only the wage dispute to mediation, a German process that is more than U.S. mediation but less than binding arbitration. But strike actions and lockouts are both prohibited while a mediator makes a determination and recommendation, so flights can continue now without disruption.
The two parties are about 1 percent apart in the wage dispute. However, Lufthansa wins on another point: It does not have to submit its work rules offers to mediation. The flight attendants fear that Lufthansa will begin unilaterally shifting employees around its vast network of subsidiary carriers, assigning well-paid Lufthansa workers to lower-paid positions at the other airlines.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 2:30PM ET
LUFTHANSA AND UNION AGREE TO MEDIATION
Lufthansa and the UFO flight attendants union have agreed to at least some mediation and that, under German law, should end any further strike action for the immediate future. Today's strike, however, will continue to have some negative repercussions for flyers through the weekend. It looks as if some flights from Lufthansa's more easterly US gateways will go tonight and tomorrow's West Coast departures are back on the schedule. I also think you can now book with confidence for flights going forward next week and you needn't worry too much about flights you have already booked.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 8:30AM ET
LUFTHANSA AND THE UNION WILL START TALKING
Lufthansa and its striking attendants union apparently are going to talk today after the third work stoppage in eight days. Even more important, the flight attendants say they aren't planning any more job actions and won't strike again so long as they and Lufthansa are in productive discussions.
According to a Reuters dispatch this morning, the union leader, Nicoley Baublies, said he wanted to end the "trench warfare" between the cabin crews and the airlines.
Why are the two sides willing to talk now after being incommunicado for more than a week? This is speculation on my part, but it could be that Lufthansa has misjudged the situation on several fronts. It has already admitted that it underestimated the union's strength and commitment. (See below.) But the carrier may have missed the pitch of its domestic customers. They don't like the disruptions, of course, but there's been very little anger aimed at the flight attendants. Without passenger scorn heaped on the union, Lufthansa can't claim the moral high ground and probably can't take more strikes.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 7:30AM ET
LUFTHANSA: NO FLIGHTS FOR YOU
Surprising no one, Lufthansa is a mess today. According to FlightStats.com, the airline has already cancelled 940 flights. Its CityLine commuter division has dumped 26 more and its Augsburg Airways unit dropped 10. By the end of the day, Lufthansa expects to cancel about two-thirds of its schedule due to the flight attendants strike.
Frankfurt, the airline's major hub, isn't swamped because it is clear that most flyers stayed away. But the wire services are reporting that travelers who are there because they were told their flights would operate aren't happy. There are (no surprise) lots of delays on the remaining flights and Lufthansa isn't doing a great job communicating its operational status.
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 6, 4PM ET
LUFTHANSA ADMITS IT GOT IT WRONG
Facing the cancellation of two thirds of its flights on Friday, Lufthansa finally admitted the incredibly obvious: It miscalculated the strength of the UFO flight attendants union and cabin crews' willingness to fight for what they want.
Interviewed by a major German television network today, Lufthansa chief executive Christoph Franz said he had "not anticipated a movement of this scale" from the flight attendants. Weirdly, he also called it "disproportionate." I guess that just sounds odd to American ears: If a union and a company can't agree, unions often go on strike. That doesn't sound disproportionate to Americans, much as it may inconvenience us on the road.
But what Franz didn't say was equally important: He doesn't seem interested in moving off the dime. The airline has refused mediation, which, by German law, would end strike actions. Other than publicly calling on the union to resume talks, it hasn't bothered to make contact with union leaders, either.
The losers: Business travelers, of course...
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 5, 4:45PM ET
LUFTHANSA DUMPS MOST FLIGHTS ON THURSDAY, FRIDAY
Flight attendants at Lufthansa have called a 24-hour strike against Lufthansa in Germany starting at 12:01am Friday, September 7, Central European Time. Lufthansa has responded by posting its list of planned cancellations. The dumped flights start as early as Thursday evening (September 6) for U.S.-originating flights and they seem to affect most every Lufthansa gateway, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Washington, Denver, Dallas/Fort Worth, Seattle and Atlanta. There are also cancellations from Vancouver, Canada.
A Lufthansa spokesman told Reuters today that it expects to dump two-thirds of its 1,800 flights on Friday. That essentially means gigantic chunks of its intra-Europe and other short-haul service and a large portion of its transatlantic service. You can examine the laundry list of cancellations here.
If there's any silver lining, JoeSentMe members that have been caught up in this say Lufthansa has been pretty good at contacting them, proactively warning them about the cancellations and automatically rebooking them on alternate flights. At least on transatlantic flights. Things haven't gone quite so well on shorter-haul flights, however, according to JoeSentMe members.
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 5, 4PM ET
LUFTHANSA NIXES MEDIATION, SO STRIKES GO ON
Lufthansa's flight attendants union has been calling for mediation of the 13-month wage, benefits and work rules dispute. Under the German labor system, strike action must cease when a third-party mediator is brought aboard. But Lufthansa has balked at mediation, apparently claiming that third-party intervention would take too long and a mediator would have trouble understanding the complex nature of the situation.
Without mediation, the strike will go forward on Friday and, one assumes, the flight attendants will continue work stoppages in the weeks ahead. Needless to say, that makes Lufthansa an unreliable travel option for the foreseeable future because you don't know when or where and with how much notice the flight attendants will mount job actions. And as Lufthansa has admitted--and its massive cancellations show--the airline simply does not have enough available staff to keep its global network going when this particular flight attendants union, called UFO, goes on strike.
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 4, 3:30PM ET
BAD TODAY, BAD TOMORROW, NEXT STRIKE FRIDAY
It's been a difficult day for Lufthansa flyers, it won't be great tomorrow and the flight attendants union has called a nationwide strike for Friday.
Lufthansa cancelled about 360 flights today, according to FlightStats.com. That's about a sixth of its global schedule. This was a result of the strike called by flight attendants at Frankfurt and Munich, Lufthansa's two primary hubs, and Berlin. A substantial number of transatlantic flights were cancelled as part of this number. About two dozen more flights were dumped by Lufthansa subsidiaries such as CityLine and Air Dolomiti.
As a knock-on to today's actions, with planes out of position and crews not in place, Lufthansa has already cancelled about a dozen flights tomorrow (Wednesday). Expect that number to rise.
Meanwhile, the union is calling for a nationwide strike on Friday, September 7. That would make it the second Friday in a row that the flight attendants will strike. In other words, as you start thinking about whether you're going to book Lufthansa in the coming weeks, I'd avoid Fridays for sure.
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 4, 2PM ET
BEST AIRPORT HOTELS AT FRANKFURT AND MUNICH
Need accommodations due to a disruption on Lufthansa? Munich's best airport hotel is the excellent Kempinski. In Frankfurt, it's the old standby (the Sheraton) or the two newcomers (the Hilton and Hilton Garden Inn). Those three are connected by covered walkways to the airport terminals and Frankfurt Airport's railway station. I wrote about all four of the properties earlier this year. Surf here for more details.
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 4, 1PM ET
TIME TO BOOK AROUND LUFTHANSA METAL
Since Lufthansa's flight attendants union has called for mediation and Lufthansa has rejected that idea, you have to assume this strike will be going on for a while. Which means you need to start thinking about avoiding Lufthansa metal or United/US Airways/Air Canada/Star Alliance itineraries that include Lufthansa code-share flights.
If you want to stay with the Star Alliance, however, United, US Airways and Air Canada all have flights to Frankfurt and Munich. Singapore Airlines has some nonstop flights to Frankfurt from the New York area. Alternately, you can try Swiss over Zurich or Austrian Airlines over Vienna. Brussels Airlines now flies JFK-Brussels and then onward from BRU. (All three of those carriers are controlled by Lufthansa but by unaffected this strike.) SAS can get you around Europe via its Copenhagen hub. Lot Polish (over Warsaw), Turkish (over Istanbul) and TAP (over Lisbon) may also work.
On SkyTeam, it's Delta Air Lines or Air France into Paris/CDG and then onward on Air France. KLM or Delta via Amsterdam or Alitalia via Rome or Milan are other alternatives.
Oneworld can get you around via London (American and British Airways), Helsinki (American and Finnair), Madrid (American and Iberia) or Berlin (Air Berlin).
Among the independents, try Aer Lingus. It'll get you many places in Europe over its Dublin hub.
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 4, 3AM ET
A LONG LIST OF WOE ALREADY
Lufthansa wasn't kidding when it said it would cancel most flights today (Tuesday) as a result of the flight attendant's strike in Frankfurt, Berlin and Munich. Starting with Monday evening's late departures from Los Angeles and Chicago, which were also dumped, very little is moving. Short-hauls are being hammered, of course, but Lufthansa is also dumping most of its transatlantic service, too. It does seem to be trying to maintain a semblance of order on the New York-Frankfurt route. It looks like only one flight (LH 404 from Frankfurt to New York) has been dropped so far. To see current cancellations, surf here on Lufthansa's Web site.
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 11PM ET
FLIGHT ATTENDANTS WILL STRIKE MUNICH, TOO
The flight attendants union has added Munich to the list of strikes today. UFO says that it will stop work at Lufthansa's second-busiest hub at 1 pm and stay off work until midnight. That will essentially put Lufthansa on the ground for most of Tuesday.
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 7PM ET
LUFTHANSA SAYS IT'LL CANCEL A 'MAJORITY' OF FLIGHTS
Lufthansa's flight attendants say they will strike tomorrow (Tuesday) in Frankfurt, the airline's primary hub, between 6 am and 2 pm local time. The flight attendants say they will also strike between 6am and 1pm at Berlin Tegel Airport. (Germany is six hours ahead of U.S. Eastern time.)
This dual whammy of job actions has led Lufthansa to say that it is "force[d] to cancel a majority of flights" on Tuesday. It has not released a list of cancellations or defined what "a majority" means. Nor does it say whether transatlantic flights will also be cancelled, although the airline did dump around a dozen U.S.-Germany flights on Friday.
And please remember: If you're on an international itinerary that includes United, US Airways or Air Canada, you may actually be on a code-share flight operated by Lufthansa. Please check your flights carefully.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 1, 8PM ET
A SLOPPY SATURDAY AT LUFTHANSA
Lufthansa cancelled 16 flights today and delayed at least 238 more, according to FlightStats.com. That's mostly a knock-on effect from yesterday's work stoppage by flight attendants in Frankfurt.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 31, 10PM ET
AN AWFUL DAY TO FLY LUFTHANSA
Lufthansa and its passengers suffered through an awful day in Frankfurt today as a result of the flight attendants strike. According to FlightStats.com, Lufthansa cancelled 205 flights and its CityLine commuter operation dumped 24 more. More than 500 flights were delayed. And, as you can read in the post below, Frankfurt Airport's terminals were overflowing with unhappy customers who couldn't fly, couldn't get something to eat and couldn't even find a place to sit.
Worse, there were so many Lufthansa aircraft stacked up at Frankfurt today that flight arrivals from all carriers were briefly suspended as the airport attempted to find space for all of the planes.
Worst of all, Lufthansa cancelled at least a dozen U.S.-Germany flights. In previous work stoppages, the airline had managed to shield its transatlantic service. That augers very poorly for future days of the strike, which will undoubtedly resume next week.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 31, 10AM ET
'JUST SHORT OF CHAOS' IN FRANKFURT
Here's the first report from a JoeSentMe member who reached Frankfurt just as the Lufthansa strike hit: "We landed from Boston around 11 am [local time]. It's just short of chaos here in Terminal A. All but the [commuter] flights and some of the long hauls are canceled. The special-services line must have 500 people in it. There are at least 100 people waiting to get into the Lufthansa clubs. There are lots of screaming kids. All the food concessions are overrun and there's no place to sit."
FRIDAY, AUGUST 31, 7:45AM ET
DOWN GOES FRANKFURT
If you think Isaac was bad, it could be worse: You could be in Frankfurt trying to deal with the fallout from the first day of the flight attendants strike against Lufthansa.
Lufthansa cancelled hundreds of flights to and from Frankfurt today. That includes at least four flights scheduled to depart from the United States tonight: one each from New York/JFK, Boston, Atlanta and Philadelphia. At least one Frankfurt-JFK flight has been cancelled, too. Track cancellations here.
We have no word yet about this weekend. And next week, when business travelers get back on the road, is going to be rocky. If your destination is Europe, consider other hubs: Madrid, London or Berlin with Oneworld carriers or Paris or Amsterdam using SkyTeam. If you want to stick with the Star Alliance, you can try SAS (Copenhagen), Swiss (Zurich) or Austrian (Vienna).
THURSDAY, AUGUST 30, 8:45PM ET
FRANKFURT FIRST TARGET OF LUFTHANSA STRIKE
Lufthansa flight attendants say their first strike will be Friday (August 31) and centered on Frankfurt, the German carrier's primary hub. Lufthansa says the strike is scheduled for 5 am to 1 pm local time, but no cancellations have been posted as of 9 p.m. Thursday (3 a.m. Friday Frankfurt time). Track developments here. Chances are that Lufthansa will be able to keep its transatlantic flights operating. Word to the wise connecting flyer: If you've got a Lufthansa (or United or US Airways code-share) flight to Frankfurt with an onward connection, only check your bags as far as FRA. If your Frankfurt connection cancels, at least you'll be in possession of your luggage when you have to find an alternate flight, take the train or camp out at an airport hotel.
THURSDAY, AUGUST 30, 10:45AM ET
LUFTHANSA STRIKE STARTS TOMORROW
Lufthansa's flight attendants union says it will begin job actions tomorrow (Friday) local time. It refuses to disclose details, but it will logically target Lufthansa's key hubs of Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin. The airline has set up a page to chronicle cancellations, but it doesn't look like there'll be much advance notice. In fairness, Lufthansa has excelled at keeping its transatlantic and other long-haul operations going in previous job actions over the last 18 months. However, it has faced chaos on intra-German and intra-Europe flights. If you are scheduled to be on Lufthansa in the next few days, consider other airline options or Deutsche Bahn, the excellent German railroad.
TUESDAY, AUGUST 28, 8:15AM ET
LUFTHANSA TALKS FAIL, STRIKE ON TAP
Talks between Lufthansa and its cabin crews have failed. The union says that it won't strike today, but will only give a few hours notice before it walks. As Lufthansa has grappled with its labor situation in the last year, it has actually done a fairly decent job keeping its transatlantic service running. But getting to its hubs in Frankfurt and Munich from other European cities will be a problem if you are booked on LH--or its Star Alliance code-share partners United and US Airways. I'll keep you informed as we hear from the unions about its plans.
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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.