PARIS (Reuters/AFP) - The French government called for an end to the Air France pilots' strike, now in its third day, as the dispute over cost cuts threatened 60 per cent of the airline's flights on Wednesday. "This strike is weighing heavily on Air France, as well as on its finances, and on the attractiveness and the image of our country," Prime Minister Manuel Valls said during an interview with France Inter radio. "No one understands what this strike is about."
Budget Minister Emmanuel Macron similarly called for a swift resolution, telling Europe 1 radio that "we cannot accept that a country gets blocked because of just a few".
The comments by Mr Valls and Mr Macron came a day after the government won a confidence vote in Parliament by a thin margin, with Mr Valls telling deputies that France needed pro-business reforms but without compromising the country's social model.
The pilots are carrying out a week-long strike over the airline's plans to expand the low-cost operations of its Transavia brand by setting up foreign bases as it seeks to fight back against fierce competition from budget carriers.
Unions fear the company will seek to cut costs by running more low-cost Transavia flights at the expense of Air France operations.
Air France is trying to boost its earnings by expanding Transavia but says that in doing so it is not trying to replace Air France.
The SNPL national pilots' union has said its members are worried the company will abandon Transavia's development in France and focus on its expansion elsewhere in Europe, moving jobs outside the country.
An Air France source told AFP that the hourly cost of employing a Transavia France pilot was some 40 per cent less than a pilot at the senior group.
A pilot for the French flag carrier earns about 75,000 euros a year on average while captains of long-haul flights can earn up to 250,000 euros.
The head of Air France has estimated that the strike will cost the company 10 million euros to 15 million euros (S$16.3 million to S$24.5 million) per day.
Shares in parent company Air France-KLM were up 1.6 per cent in early trade on Wednesday after falling 6.5 per cent over the last two days.
Air France was running only four out of 10 flights on Wednesday, as frantic negotiations between unions and management failed to provide the hoped-for breakthrough.
Management has attempted to make some concessions to pilots' fears, limiting the Transavia fleet to 30 planes instead of the 37 originally planned until 2019.
Unions want to ensure Air France pilots are at the controls of any plane with more than 100 seats, regardless of the operating company - Transavia included.
As in previous days, airports were largely deserted as Air France notified passengers in advance that their flights were cancelled.
One disgruntled passenger at the airport in the southern city of Nice, who gave his name as Jean-Pierre, found his domestic flight to western France cancelled.
"It's a bit of a swindle when you see how much the pilots earn," he complained.