Iberia Pilots Go on Strike in Spain

Pilots at Spanish airline Iberia launched a weeklong strike Monday, forcing the cancellation of more than 200 flights and obliging travelers to seek alternative arrangements in the middle holiday season in one of Europe's top tourist destinations.

Pilots fear Iberia's investment in CATair, a new low-cost airline, will lead to job cuts and are demanding guarantees that their jobs are safe. Iberia denies it plans job cuts.

The pilots union known as SEPLA said negotiations with the airline had broken down early Monday after Iberia rejected the union's latest proposals.

It was unclear how many of Iberia's 1,900 pilots would take part in the strike, but the airline feared that 1,500 flights and around 200,000 passengers could be affected over the seven days of the planned strike.

Many passengers have been assigned alternate flights, had their money refunded or were allowed to rebook with other carriers, said Iberia spokesman Jaime Perez Guerra.

He said 220 flights were canceled Monday and an average of 240 a day would be scrapped for the rest of the week. The stoppage will cost Spain's flagship carrier euro35 million ($44.7 million) in lost revenue, the spokesman said.

Transport Ministry rules requiring minimum service levels during strikes, including one flight a day on each route, mean the routes most affected would be those within Spain and to other destinations in Europe.

Routes like that to Chicago in the United States, Peru, Venezuela and Costa Rica would be unaffected because there is only one flight per day, but the Madrid to Barcelona route, for example, which has 44 flights a day, could be hard hit.

Perez Guerra said Iberia was seeking to have the strike declared illegal through Spain's courts, as it was not an internal airline matter but related to pilots complaining about competition from an outside company.

Keen to reduce labor costs and eliminate unprofitable flights, Iberia has been phasing out services from Barcelona's airport to make way for the October launch there of CATair.

Iberia hopes to route most flights through its new state-of-the-art hub in Madrid, where profitable long-haul flights originate. Some 350 Iberia pilots currently fly from Barcelona.

Iberia and four partners announced the new carrier in April. It will have a 20 percent voting stake and 80 percent equity through a euro24 million (US$30 million) investment.

Iberia will not assume management of CATair, thus freeing itself from high labor costs associated with its own operations. An Iberia pilot earns euro200,000 (US$255,600) a year while its co-pilots take home euro150,000 (US$191,700), Perez Guerra said.

CATair expects to have a 30-aircraft fleet by 2008.

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