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Saturday, June 25, 2022

Airline strike chaos nears climax

Frustrated airline passengers have had to deal with strikes, delays, airport chaos in Europe and now flight cancellations in Norway this week. Striking aircraft technicians in Norway may be ordered back to work this weekend, though, and many are hoping SAS and its unhappy pilots will come to terms before a threatened strike next week.

Just when Norwegian airports and airlines were finally able to crank up again in time for revived summer air travel following the Corona crisis, strikes and staffing shortages are causing chaos both at home and around Europe. PHOTO: Avinor

It’s been a terrible few days for many travelers trying to fly anywhere around Europe this week. Chaotic conditions at major European hubs like Schipol in Amsterdam, caused mostly by staffing shortages and labour conflicts, have left passengers standing in line for hours on end at security checkpoints. They’ve ended up missing flights and losing their baggage, with one young man telling Norwegian Broadcaster (NRK) on Wednesday that “I just want to go home now.”

Some of the airport chaos spilled over to Oslo this week, after some problems with baggage handling but mostly a strike called last weekend by the labour organization representing aircraft technicians, NFO. They’re demanding raises amounting to as much as 18 percent, which even labour-friendly media have branded as “sky-high” and “unrealistic.”

Now, after airlines have had to start cancelling flights because of scheduled maintenance needs, the national employers organization NHO is warning that it will declare a lockout from Sunday June 26. That could in turn prompt state labour officials to order the technicians back to work, since the lockout would also ground air amublance traffic in Norway. Such back-to-work orders are only allowed in cases where life and health are at risk.

NHO officials confirmed renewed contact with NFO on Wednesday, but didn’t have any “concrete” news to offer. It’s clear that the technicians’ strike is highly unpopular with travelers, lacks support from other labour organizations and is also threatening airlines already struggling financially after the Corona crisis shut them down. Tens of thousands of airline passengers have also been looking forward to summer holidays and family reunions that are now being spoiled after the technicians chose to strike during one of the busiest travel weeks of the year. Air cargo customers are also affected, especially those shipping fresh salmon via air, for example.

NFO defends its strike on the grounds its members need higher pay to compensate for lots of nighttime work and a need to recruit more technicians. NRK reported on Wednesday, however, that there are far more students seeking the specialized technicians’ education than there are available slots at colleges offering such programs.

Meanwhile, Norwegian Air has been among airlines having to cancel flights after initially thinking it wouldn’t be necessary. With NFO now pulling more and more technicians off the job, Norwegian had to cancel 10 flights on Tuesday, 17 on Wednesday and more on Thursday. Short-haul carrier Widerøe has cancelled 38 flights and SAS a few as well. Only the start-up Norwegian airline Flyr is unaffected because its technicians are not represented by NFO.

SAS, meanwhile, is still bracing for a threatened strike by its pilots from June 29. SAS chief executive Anko van der Werff told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that not only would the strike disrupt travel for thousands of passengers next week, it also threatens SAS’ very future.

“First and foremost, this is very hard on the passengers, after more than two years with a pandemic when people couldn’t travel,” van der Werff told DN. “A conflict in the middle of the high (summer) season is extra difficult.” He also warned that it can scare off the very investors SAS needs to keep it aloft financially.

“The pilots are gambling now with our ability to attract new investors (and needed capital),” van der Werff said. “We’ve been open with the pilots about that and they need to know about that.” He decried how the pilots, who cut off negotiations in March, have “waited with the next step in this conflict until the high season at the end of June, the busiest week for us all year. It’s unheard of.”

He said he thinks there are “many pilots in the company who don’t want to got this far. It also creates great uncertainty for all of our 8,000 employees.” Neither of the two unions representing SAS pilots in Norway responded to calls for comment.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

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