Fans grounded as French pilots' strike kicks off

John Lichfield
Tuesday 02 June 1998 00:02 BST

THE skies over France fell silent - or almost silent - yesterday. A strike by Air France pilots forced the cancellation of the vast majority of the airline's internal and foreign flights.

The day passed off peacefully. Most would-be travellers seemed to have made other plans, taking trains or other airlines, or just staying at home. Much greater disruption, and anger, can be expected today, when tens of thousands of people try to return home after the Pentecost long weekend.

With no early end to the strike in sight, it is looking more and more likely that the dispute will upset long-distance travel to the World Cup, which starts a week tomorrow.

Among the early victims - an own goal scored from the air - was the French football squad, which was due to fly to Finland for its last pre-contest friendly match on Thursday. Its scheduled Air France flight has been cancelled. The French football authorities, like thousands of other people, were scrambling to make alternative arrangements yesterday.

The largest pilots' union, which represents over 60 per cent of the state- owned airline's 3,200 pilots and navigators, is threatening to stay out until 15 June, five days after the World Cup begins. Five other smaller unions have declared a four- or five-day strike, until the weekend, but may prolong their action.

Air France is the "official airline" of the World Cup. It guarantees that scores of special team flights during the contest will take place, even if executives have to leave their offices to take the controls. Scheduled, and special, flights for fans are, however, a different story.

The French government faces the embarrassment of watching many of the longer-distance travellers to the World Cup - from Brazil, Chile, Colombia, the United States, Japan and South Korea - being forced to switch their flights to other airlines or other destinations, such as London or Amsterdam or Frankfurt. The newspaper Le Figaro described this yesterday as a national humiliation. "These people will never again place their trust in this bizarre country, which gives moral lessons to the planet, but bows before a few handfuls of wealthy [protesters]," the veteran journalist, Georges Suffert, wrote in a front-page editorial.

Air France pilots earn up to pounds 100,000 a year, 20 per cent more than British Airways pilots and 40 per cent more than those at Lufthansa. As part of the preparation of the airline for a partial privatisation this autumn, the pilots have been asked to take a 15 per cent pay cut over three years. In return, they would be given shares in the part-floated company. The pilots say the demands are unacceptable; they claim shares in a part- privatised Air France are unlikely to be worth very much.

Moving around France is likely to become even more complicated later this week. Railway guards and the drivers of the locomotives which position carriages for passenger trains will be on strike on Friday and part of Saturday. Some small groups of railwaymen say they will strike during the five weeks of the World Cup itself but they are not regarded as a serious threat.

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