Striking Lufthansa pilots to suspend their walkout

A four-day walkout by Lufthansa pilots that disrupted travel for thousands of people was cut short after the airline and their union agreed to suspend the strike and hold talks, both sides said Monday.

They reached an agreement after a two-hour long hearing at a Frankfurt labor court, Cockpit union spokesman Joerg Handwerg told The Associated Press.

Lufthansa confirmed the decision and said the walkout would end at midnight (2300 GMT, 6 p.m. ET).

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“The parties agreed in front of the court that the strike is to be suspended through the 8th of March,” Lufthansa spokesman Andreas Bartels told AP, adding the 4,000 pilots will return to work Tuesday though it would take some time for normal operations to resume.

“They’re going to go back to work tomorrow,” he said. “I can’t say when we are back to normal operations. It takes a lot of time.”

Some 10,000 Lufthansa and Germanwings passengers were upended by the strike, which began at 12:01 a.m. (2301 GMT, 6:01 p.m. ET) Monday.

Handwerg said the strike was suspended until March 9, pending the resumption of talks between both sides. Pilots for Lufthansa Cargo and the low-budget subsidiary, Germanwings, were also taking part in the strike.

“We are happy with the agreement because Lufthansa now has to resume negotiations without preconditions,” Handwerg said.

Lufthansa and Cockpit stressed in the agreement that the strike’s suspension did not say anything about the walkout’s legitimacy, court spokesman Frank Woitaschek said in a statement.

Lufthansa pilots announced the walkout last week over their concerns that cheaper crews from Lufthansa’s smaller airlines in other countries could eventually replace them.

The Lufthansa strike disrupted plans for 10,000 passengers worldwide, but that was just the tip of the travel chaos iceberg.

Also Monday, five unions representing French air traffic controllers announced a four-day strike of their own starting Tuesday that is forcing the cancellation of hundreds of flights at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports. France’s DGAC aviation authority ordered airlines to cancel 50% of the flights at Orly and 25% of the flights at Charles de Gaulle.

French carrier Air France said it would maintain all of its long-haul flights during the strike, with the protest movement affecting only its routes within France and Europe.

British Airways PLC, meanwhile, faced a renewed threat of cabin crew strikes, after the Unite union announced Monday that most of its members had voted in favor of a walkout.

And Eurostar— the main train alternative to planes between Paris, Brussels and London — experienced yet another embarrassing train failure.

A Eurostar Paris-to London train inexplicably broke down in southern England late Sunday, plunging more than 700 passengers into darkness and forcing them to climb down ladders onto the track to a replacement train. They arrived in London about 2:30 a.m. (0230 GMT Monday, 9:30 p.m. ET Sunday), more than four hours late.

Last week, Eurostar was sharply criticized by independent investigators for its response when several trains broke down before Christmas in the Channel Tunnel, disrupting travel plans for tens of thousands of people.

Lufthansa, meanwhile, had quickly rushed to get a court injunction to halt the strike to the pilots back to work before more harm was done to passengers and shareholders.

Albert Carles and his wife arrived at Frankfurt airport after a 14-hour flight from Vietnam to find that their connecting flight to Marseille was canceled and trains to Paris were overbooked.

“There is no information, we are left on our own,” he told German news agency DAPD. “We have not eaten or drunk anything.”

Lufthansa said many long-haul flights to the U.S., including New York and Denver, were canceled but it was still running many domestic flights and short-haul routes across Europe. Other flights to the U.S. — including Newark, New Jersey, Dallas and Chicago — were running as scheduled Monday, as were flights to destinations in Africa, South America and Asia.

The airline estimated the strike would cost it around euro25 million ($34 million) per day.

Despite the late-hour agreement, more trouble for the German carrier loomed when the UFO cabin crew union said in a statement that it was considering walkouts of its own “in the coming weeks.”

The union, which represents about 16,000 workers, wants to limit cabin crew to a maximum of 40 hours of work per week.

In London, Unite —Britain‘s biggest labor union — said after the vote that it was not announcing any strike date and its members will meet Thursday to discuss the ballot result before deciding on a strike date.

A previous strike threat by BA cabin crew — planned for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays — was canceled only after the airline obtained an emergency court injunction blocking it.

Fears about job security were the underlying theme for all the airline work actions.

The French air traffic controllers are upset about plans to integrate European air traffic operations, leaving them to face new work rules, the loss of their civil servant benefits or even job cuts. British Airways cabin crews don’t want the company to slash the number of employees working on flights.

Lufthansa typically has 1,800 flights a day and offers around 160 long-haul flights to destinations worldwide. The airline said it was trying to rebook travelers on partner airlines or trains and would reimburse those unable to be rescheduled.

Resat Saritas tried to get home to Dubai, but found his flight was canceled. Despite his unhappiness over his flight, he said the strike was justified.

“The pilots deserve more money. The mentality of the company is not good. Please don’t do this again,” he said. “It’s not nice for the pilots and it’s not nice for the passengers.”

Lufthansa, based in Cologne, owns or holds significant stakes in airlines including Swiss International Airlines, Austrian Airlines, JetBlue of the U.S. and Britain’s BMI. Those airlines are not affected by the strike.

The pilots are seeking increased work security and want German labor conditions to apply to Lufthansa pilots hired abroad, in an effort to prevent their jobs from migrating to neighboring countries with cheaper conditions. Lufthansa has denied it was planning to relocate the jobs.

Tony Concil of the International Air Transit Association in Geneva noted that the global airline industry is still losing money and still needs to cut operating costs.

“The industry lost $11 billion in 2009 and will probably lose $5.6 billion in 2010,” he told AP. “The emphasis at airlines is saving cash, managing capacity as effectively as possible, and cutting costs.”

Lufthansa reached out to travelers online, posting a strike schedule on its website and offering flight updates on Twitter.

But some travelers were still caught unaware.

“We arrived in Frankfurt from Taiwan. We have been on the road for 24 hours,” a Swiss woman told AP Television News. “We wanted to fly on with Lufthansa, but couldn’t because the flight was canceled. We could not get a Swiss Air flight either so now we have to go on the train for another six hours.”

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