RAINER UPHOFF / MADRID

Union's claims of maintenance deficiencies seen by some as an attempt to bring down airline's management

Spanish pilots' union SEPLA has angered some of its own members by launching a safety campaign against flag-carrier Iberia which last week forced the airline to carry out emergency repairs on its Airbus narrowbody fleet.

Flight International has seen evidence of a group of pilots urging the union to bring down chairman Xavier de Irala and president Angel Mullor by "consuming" them with claims of unsafe practices - regardless of whether they are justified.

Already the airline is having to replace large numbers of cargo-hold lining panels after SEPLA claimed that long-accepted repairs made to them constituted a safety hazard. Some aircraft could not carry hold baggage while waiting for work.

SEPLA also announced that the airline had suffered a rash of engine problems on its Boeing 747s during the summer and was cutting corners on maintenance.Iberia denies the suggestions which were widely aired in the Spanish media.

Iberia says the size of its maintenance operation has naturally declined as the airline has reduced the number of types in the fleet.

The campaign appears to be driven by hardline pilots still furious with De Irala and Mullor for standing up to them in bitter labour negotiations last year which drastically curtailed SEPLA's notoriously powerful influence at the airline. The final settlement means SEPLA cannot strike before July 2005.

One pilot opposed to SEPLA's actions calls the campaign "suicide", saying: "Our current union leaders have the problem that they need to justify their role and build up their identity as SEPLA cannot go on strike. Instead, they are constructing false or ambiguous cases over what can most harm Iberia's public image: its safety and maintenance practices."

"We know that Iberia has world-class maintenance and safety procedures, and that the Spanish aviation authority is very strict and unforgiving, but the flying public does not have this insider knowledge."

Messages on the Iberia pilots' internet chatline show members calling for the downfall of De Irala and Mullor, making it clear that spurious safety allegations should be used if necessary.

SEPLA does not deny that the messages exist but threatens possible "legal action" against any pilot found to reveal their contents to the media.

Source: Flight International