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Lufthansa pilots to end walkout

Two Lufthansa pilots take part in a demonstration at the Frankfurt airport on the first day of a walkout.
Two Lufthansa pilots take part in a demonstration at the Frankfurt airport on the first day of a walkout.
Michael Probst, Associated Press

FRANKFURT — Lufthansa and its pilots are set to return to the cockpit after the German airline and a key union agreed to halt a four-day strike that disrupted travelers and was poised to go on through Friday.

The four-day walkout ended less than 24 hours after it began after two hours in a Frankfurt labor court that saw both sides agree to suspend the strike and hold talks, they said Monday night.

Lufthansa confirmed the decision and said the walkout would end at midnight in Germany, or 6 p.m. Eastern time in the U.S.

"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.

Some 10,000 Lufthansa and Germanwings passengers were upended by the strike, which began at 12:01 a.m. Monday and ended at midnight.

Cockpit union spokesman Joerge 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 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 first of what was set to come this week.

Five unions representing French air traffic controllers on Monday 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 percent of the flights at Orly and 25 percent 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 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., 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 peopleAll told, Monday was not a good day for travelers.

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."

While Lufthansa canceled about 800 of its estimated 1,800 daily flights — including long-haul flights to U.S. destinations like New York and Denver — Bartels said the airline will move toward resuming its normal operations, but cautioned it would not be immediate.

"I can't say when we are back to normal operations. It takes a lot of time."

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

The airline may face more obstacles in coming weeks. Late Monday, Germany's UFO cabin crew union said in a statement that it was considering walkouts of its own "in the coming weeks."

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.

The Lufthansa 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 Web site 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."