French pilots win new offer

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The Independent Online
THE FRENCH government opened its wallet yesterday in an attempt to end the strike by Air France pilots, which threatens to disrupt travel to the football World Cup next week.

As negotiations between the airlines and pilots' unions resumed after four days of deadlock, the transport minister, Jean-Claude Gayssot, told a boisterous French parliament he was considering "additional" measures to help the state-owned airline.

According to Le Monde, this could take the form of temporary exemptions, or reductions, on employment contributions. At the same time, the airline has let it be known that it is prepared to soften its demands for a 15 per cent cut in pilots' wages over three years.

More than 80 per cent of internal and foreign flights by Air France flights were cancelled yesterday, a slight improvement on the first day of the strike.

The French media, of both right and left, has condemned the pilots' action as a gratuitous blot on the modern, forward-looking image which France hoped to project during the World Cup. As the negotiations continued last night, however, it appeared to be the government and the airline which were preparing to bail out.

Air France has demanded a 15 per cent cut in pilots' salaries to improve its competitiveness and assist the company's partial privatisation this autumn.

In return, management has offered the pilots shares in the part-floated company. The pilots' unions have said they could only accept this offer if they were able to claw back the wage cuts in the next few years.

The director-general of Air France, Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, said such a demand was not "necessarily an obstacle" to negotiation.

Pilots who preferred not to take the shares would have their salaries frozen at present levels. This would leave the airline short of its stated aim of reducing its pilots' wage bill by pounds 50m a year.

Mr Gayssot, a Communist and former transport union leader, told the National Assembly the whole burden of savings should not necessarily fall on the pilots.

The government would consider "additional" ways of helping Air France. Subsidies, in the form of tax breaks, may, however, fall foul of EU competition law.