Air France pilot strike sparks travel chaos as at least half of airline's flights scrapped

This photo shows the Air France check-in hall and a departing flight timetable at the 2F terminal of Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport in Roissy, north of Paris, on Sept 15, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
This photo shows the Air France check-in hall and a departing flight timetable at the 2F terminal of Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport in Roissy, north of Paris, on Sept 15, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - French flag carrier Air France was set to scrap at least half its flights on Monday as pilots began a strike against the company's plan to develop its low-cost subsidiary.

Several passengers were stranded as the week-long strike kicked off, sparking outrage among weary travellers such as Mr Jean-Marc Ragot, who arrived from Nairobi to Paris to find his connecting flight to the eastern French city of Lyon cancelled. "I can't return home, thanks for the joy," he complained at Charles de Gaulle Airport. "I've had it up to here with strikes in France. One always has a problem when one returns home."

Air France said it had sent 65,000 text messages to passengers affected by the strike and deployed some 7,000 extra workers to help stranded customers. Munich-bound Mr Carlos Gomez received such a message but turned up at Paris's main airport despite all flights to the German city being scrapped. "I simply have to get to Munich today and I have to find a solution," he said.

"We expect to be able to run 48 per cent of our flights" with roughly 60 per cent of pilots downing tools, Air France's director of operations Catherine Jude said on Sunday. But a pilots' union warned that eight out of 10 flights could be cancelled as the strike continued later into the week.

The main pilots' union at Air France (SNPL) has called for a week-long strike, which would be the longest at the company since 1998.

The company urged "customers who have booked a flight between Sept 15 and 22 to delay their trip, change their ticket free of charge or claim a refund".

Labour unions fear that expanding Air France's low-cost operation Transavia will lead to "jobs being outsourced" and "social dumping" with pilots being employed on local contracts.

"This is about a point of principle. We're not even talking about a rise in wages," said Mr Jean-Louis Barber, the head of the SNPL union.

Air France boss Frederic Gagey put the daily losses from the strike at "10 to 15 million" euros (S$16.3 million to S$24.6 million) and said management was "doing everything with the social partners to try and find a way out of this situation".

Mr Barber warned the transport situation would be even worse on Tuesday and Wednesday as the pilots who did decide to work on Monday would have to take their legally stipulated rest.

The company said: "If the strike continues beyond Sept 15, the flight schedule will be modified as a result. The knock-on effects will be communicated to passengers the day before they are due to leave."

Seeking to take advantage of its rival's woes, low-cost airline easyJet on Saturday laid on 1,000 extra seats on flights from Paris to the southern cities of Toulouse and Nice.