At least half of all Air France flights have been cancelled as pilots begin a week-long strike amid anger over jobs and operations being moved to a low-cost carrier.
The company’s issues echo those faced by flagship airlines across Europe as they face tough competition from budget carriers for short-haul flights and cash-rich Gulf state planes on long-haul routes.
In the case of Air France-KLM, French labour law makes it complex and costly to make employees redundant or adjust contracts in times of financial trouble.
The carrier announced a plan last week aimed at saving one billion euro (£797 million) over the next several years, and said it will transfer much of its European operations – and jobs – to low-cost carrier Transavia.
Air France pilots’ unions have called for a week-long strike, starting on Monday, as they seek better conditions under the plan.
Air France is urging passengers to change or postpone travel plans, estimating that it can only ensure 48% of flights on Monday, and just 40% on Tuesday.
The Paris airport authority said only half of Air France flights were operating out of Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports.
At Charles de Gaulle on Monday morning, crowds gathered at the Air France counter to try to change their tickets, and cancelled flights were removed from departure and arrival screens.
Austrian tourist Alice White said: “I thought that something was up when I saw that my flight wasn’t on the departures board. I hope I will be back to Vienna in time to be at work.”
Budget carrier easyJet is watching closely, and announced extra seats for passengers stranded by the Air France action.
In Germany, a union representing Lufthansa’s pilots said they will walk off the job at Frankfurt airport on Tuesday, preventing departures by Germany’s biggest airline from its busiest airport.
The two sides are locked in a dispute over the pilots’ demand that Lufthansa keeps paying a transition payment for those wishing to retire early. The airline wants to cut those payments.
Other established European carriers have faced similar problems, with many struggling to adapt.
Scandinavia’s SAS, under pressure from low-cost airlines including Norwegian and Ryanair, was close to bankruptcy in 2012 when unions agreed to a $440m savings package that included salary cuts and changes to work schedules and pension plans for employees.
SAS, which still has higher operating costs than its competitors in the region, has since intensified its savings effort.
Italy’s Alitalia is being taken over by the Emirates-based airline, Etihad, after likewise teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Unions had to agree to deep labour force cuts, and the head of Etihad will be meeting with employees in coming days to discuss the airline’s organisation.
Etihad is injecting €560m for a 49% stake, and it aims to return Alitalia to profitability by 2017.