Christian Blanc must have cast an envious glance across the water to his counterpart at British Airways after the UK carrier stopped a strike by its pilots at the eleventh hour. Still the Air France chairman may yet have divided the disgruntled pilots at Air France enough to push through his plans for the carrier.

Blanc scrapped his plan of merging Air France's shorthaul operation into Air France Europe, formerly Air Inter, after the latter's pilots rejected terms which would have put them on a par with their counterparts at the mainline carrier: a 15 per cent pay cut and a 15 per cent productivity rise. Blanc now says he will impose Air France's conditions on the ex-Air Inter pilots when their contract expires next April and merge the unit into the rest of the group.

This has provoked a heated debate within the six pilot unions that represent a mix of Air France and ex-Air Inter pilots. Air France Europe pilots walked out for a day in early July and at presstime were threatening a further one day stoppage in mid-July.

A split has even emerged among the ex-Air Inter pilots themselves. 'Although half of Air Inter pilots are still against the deal, the other half are coming out in favour of it,' says Jeoffrey Bouvet, president of pilots' union SNPL.

Many pilots recognise that Air Inter would falter were it to concentrate solely on short-haul flights. 'Future growth will come from long-haul rather than short-haul operations,' predicts Etienne Lichtenberger, secretary of pilots' union, SPAC.

The ex-Air Inter pilots, however, are concerned that the company will prevent them from transferring to long-haul operations once they are integrated, says Air Inter pilot Christian Liaudet. He admits he is resigned to accepting the lower pay and working conditions but says pilots will not make further concessions. 'Any worse conditions, and we'll fight,' says Liaudet.

But Alain Dubourj of Air France's white collar union believes the latest plan will result in redundancies. 'You can't have a merger without job losses,' he says.

Patrick Tamburini, secretary general of Air France's flight attendants' union, warns that the dispute must be settled quickly so the carrier can concentrate on the competition at home and abroad. 'Others are getting together, while Air France competes internally,' he says, pointing to the recent alliance between AOM and Air Liberté (see page 8).

On the other hand, British Airways chief executive Bob Ayling must have breathed a sigh of relief in mid-July when pilot union Balpa agreed to a new pay deal for its 300 members at BA's low cost operation, Euro Gatwick, only five days before indefinite strike action was planned.

BA says its offer had not changed from one put to the pilots at the start of July, which gives Euro Gatwick pilots an average 10 per cent pay rise for a 10 per cent productivity increase on top of a 3.6 per cent rise for all pilots.

But Balpa's secretary general Chris Darke disagrees and says he won a concession to put all Gatwick European crews on the same pay scales as BA Regional pilots. He says this will help BA attract more pilots to Euro Gatwick, which is essential if the carrier is to carry out its growth plan.

BA plans to add up to 14 extra B737s to the 25 already there over the next 12 months. Before the deal Gatwick was 'almost a no-go area for pilots in the rest of the company,' says Darke.

L Jones/M Odell

Source: Airline Business