DUBLIN, Ireland_Aer Lingus and Ireland's largest labor union opened negotiations Tuesday aimed at averting a strike this weekend over the airline's plans to cut staff benefits and overtime.
Aer Lingus has warned customers to prepare for potential flight delays Wednesday, the day before a strike vote by the SIPTU union comes into effect.
SIPTU says it will strike for a 24-hour period Sunday if Aer Lingus does not withdraw plans to introduce tougher rules for working hours, overtime and holiday time. Aer Lingus has already applied the new rules to new recruits.
Negotiators from both sides agreed to hold talks in Ireland's Labour Court, which has the power to impose solutions on industrial disputes.
The Aer Lingus chief executive, Dermot Mannion, said the airline must aggressively prune staff costs to become more competitive, notably with Dublin-based budget rival Ryanair. He rejected union accusations the new work rules were unreasonable or were being imposed too quickly.
"Our agenda of change in work practice issues has been clear for a long period of time. We need to move forward with this with extreme urgency," he said outside the court.
SIPTU national secretary Michael Halpenny said members might mount lower-level protests before Sunday, including refusal to do overtime or remain on standby.
"The company will have been the ones who pull the trigger on this. If they fire ahead, we will have to protect ourselves," Halpenny said.
SIPTU, the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union, represents about 1,800 of Aer Lingus' 3,300-strong workforce, mostly ground crew.
The union that represents most Aer Lingus pilots and cabin crew, IMPACT, is not involved in the strike threat.
Aer Lingus is under pressure to cut costs and remain profitable. Ryanair, Europe's biggest budget airline, on Oct. 5 launched a hostile takeover bid for Aer Lingus and has built a 25.2 percent stake in its rival.
That bid is on hold pending an investigation by European Union competition authorities into whether a merged Aer Lingus-Ryanair operation would produce an Irish air monopoly.
The Irish government, which opposes the Ryanair bid, has a 25 percent stake in Aer Lingus. Aer Lingus employees and retirees who control more than 15 percent of Aer Lingus shares are also resisting the bid.
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