Iberia Ground Workers Strike Erupts In Violence

Striking ground workers and flight attendants for Iberia, the unprofitable Spanish airline, clashed with riot police officers at Madrid-Barajas Airport on Monday, the first day of three weeks of work stoppages intended to protest a plan to eliminate more than 3,800 jobs.

Despite a robust police blockade, several hundred of the roughly 8,000 protesters managed to enter Terminal 4 - Iberia's main operating hub at the airport - creating additional chaos and frustration there for many passengers who had already been forced to wait for delayed flights. The police arrested five Iberia employees, but the protest did not result in any significant damage within or outside the terminal.

The demonstration, which airline officials said lasted little more than an hour, was the latest episode in a dispute between unions and Iberia's London-based parent, International Airlines Group, which warned in November that the airline was in a ''fight for survival'' and had no choice but to make drastic cuts.

I.A.G., which also owns British Airways, had originally envisioned staff reductions of 4,500 or more at Iberia, which says it is currently burning through nearly (EURO)2 million, or $2.7 million, a day. The company said last week that it would press ahead with eliminating 3,807 jobs over the next 30 days after its offer to limit the cuts to around 3,100 - in exchange for salary cuts of between 11 percent and 23 percent - was rejected last month by unions.

Spain's deepening recession and fierce competition from budget competitors like easyJet and Ryanair have left Iberia struggling to restore profitability. In addition to the staff cuts, Iberia is cutting capacity by 15 percent, eliminating a number of unprofitable routes to cities like Athens, Cairo, Istanbul and Havana.

I.A.G., which reports its 2012 results on Feb. 28, has forecast an operating loss of (EURO)120 million for the year. Iberia reported an operating loss of (EURO)262 million for the first nine months of last year, offsetting most of the (EURO)286 million profit made by British Airways in the same period.

I.A.G. was formed by the merger of Iberia with British Airways in 2011.

Santiago de Juan, an Iberia spokesman, said the airline was canceling 415 flights through Friday, around 39 percent of the total scheduled. Cancellations were primarily affecting Iberia's domestic Spanish flights, of which 54 percent were not expected to operate this week, while only 10 percent of its intercontinental flights were affected. More than 60 percent of Iberia's flights to European and African destinations were operating normally, Mr. Juan said.

A total of 70,000 Iberia passengers are expected to be affected by the strike this week, of whom 60,000 were rebooked on alternative flights, at the airline's expense, as of Friday. The remaining 10,000 were to receive refunds, the airline said.

Unions representing Iberia ground staff and flight attendants have announced plans to strike from Feb. 18 to 22; March 4 to 8; and March 18 to 22. The airline's pilots were expected to join the strike beginning March 4.

Mr. Juan said Iberia expected the level of flight disruption to be roughly the same for each five-day strike period. He said it was too early to estimate the final cost of the labor actions to the airline.

The retrenchments at Iberia are the latest among Europe's full-service carriers as they struggle to compete with leaner low-cost rivals in Europe, as well as with fast-growing Gulf-based airlines like Emirates and Etihad on long-distance routes. The effects of a slowing economy combined with high fuel costs have exacerbated the airlines' woes.

Air France and Lufthansa of Germany announced plans to eliminate a combined 8,600 jobs as part of their own multibillion-euro restructuring efforts.

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