Air France will fly into severe turbulence next week after failing to persuade its 4,000 pilots to work longer hours.
The French flag-carrier is expected to announce almost 3,000 job cuts, the scrapping of some routes and sale of at least 15 aircraft. Ground staff will strike for two hours on Monday in protest but their anger is directed as much at pilots as the airline’s management.
The main French pilots’ union this week rejected proposals to reduce the airline’s wage bill, which is estimated to be 25 per cent higher than that of equivalent airlines, such as British Airways. Although Air France will break even this year, the management says that it cannot compete indefinitely with low-cost carriers and state-subsidised airlines from the Gulf.
In “last chance” talks this week it asked its pilots – traditionally the airline’s chief power-brokers – to accept a 17 per cent increase in “productivity” over two years. Similar proposals have been accepted by other employees.
At present, senior pilots at Air France earn about €208,000 (about £150,000) a year to fly an average of two hours a day long haul and one and a half hours short haul. Other large airlines in Europe pay 7 per cent less and expect their pilots to fly 20 per cent more.
The pilots’ union, the SNPL, rejected the proposal but said it would put forward ideas of its own. The Air France board said that it considered the negotiations to have collapsed. It warned that it would announce on Monday a “Plan B”, which is forecast to involve 2,900 job cuts, including the axeing of 300 pilots.
Alexandre de Juniac, the president and chief executive of Air France, said the airline faced “terrible competition” in the years ahead. If the pilots refused to fly significantly longer for the same pay, cuts in routes, fleet numbers and staff were inevitable, he added.
French economy minister Emmanuel Macron said Air France “must” carry out reforms amid such stiff competition across the industry. “I call on social partners, and pilots in particular, to take their responsibilities… The door remains open for constructive counter-proposals,” he said.
The Transport Minister, Alain Vidalies, has been trying to broker weekend talks between Air France and the pilots. The pilots were also under pressure from unions representing other grades of staff, including flight attendants. Béatrice Lestic of the Air France branch of the CFDT moderate trades union federation, said: “It’s perfectly normal for the [pilots’ union] to defend its members’ interests. But it is totally unacceptable for the pilots’ union’s bureau to block a cost-cutting plan which is perfectly reasonable.”