BERLIN: Lufthansa canceled about two-thirds of its flights Friday after flight attendants walked off the job at airports around the country in an escalating battle with Germany's largest airline, but signs emerged that the two sides may be prepared to return to the negotiating table.
The flight attendants, represented by the UFO union, walked off the job at midnight Thursday in a 24-hour strike that analysts say could cost Lufthansa some 7 million euros ($8.7 million). The airline's fight with the union comes as it struggles to fend off challenges from budget carriers and government-owned airlines in the Persian Gulf.
The strike was the most extensive of three work stoppages over the past week after 13 months of contract negotiations broke down over differences in pay, and union demands that the airline agree not to outsource jobs or employ temporary cabin crew employees.
Union chairman Nicoley Baublies told The Associated Press at Frankfort airport early Friday that he had talked on the phone with Lufthansa during the night, and that the two sides had agreed to call in a mediator to help them settle their dispute. Baublies also said the union was not going to stage any more strikes immediately, saying they were calling a "pause for Lufthansa to think things over."
"It seems that they have now realized we stand united, they have more or less waved the white flag, so we must now get back into talks," he said.
Lufthansa spokesman Klaus Walther struck a more skeptical tone, describing the conversation as "unfortunately not effective." Though saying there is a standing invitation to resume negotiations, he suggested that the airline was not prepared to give too much ground.
"We can still act from a position of strength," he said on n-tv. "If we want to continue to play a leading global role, we have to adjust to modern competition."
Limited walkouts Tuesday at airports in Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin followed the launch of the flight attendants' strike campaign last Friday. The latest work stoppage will include major airports in Frankfurt, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Stuttgart and effect long-haul destinations in the United States and East Asia.
The impact of the strike will not be clear for hours because the walkout went into effect at an hour when commercial flights are severely restricted due to noise abatement regulations.
While the earlier walkouts were called with only six hours notice, causing huge lineups and chaos at the airport terminals. Lufthansa had longer to prepare for Friday's strike. It canceled flights well in advance and the scene was calm at Frankfurt airport, Germany's largest, Friday morning.
In a television interview Thursday, Lufthansa CEO Christoph Franz acknowledged that the airline's management had underestimated the union's resolve but gave no indication the airline was ready to accept the flight attendants' demands.
The union is demanding a 5 percent pay raise for more than 18,000 cabin staff. Lufthansa is offering a 3.5 percent boost and is calling for a slight increase in working hours.
Lufthansa is trying to implement a far-reaching cost reduction program to cope with rising fuel prices as well as vigorous competition from European discount carriers and the big Gulf airlines such as Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways. The Gulf giants are challenging Lufthansa and other major European carriers especially in lucrative routes between Europe and East Asia.
Lufthansa aims to improve the company's operating profit by 1.5 billion euros (1.9 billion) compared to 2011 by the end of 2014.
The union objects to what it says would be only gradual pay increases and lower salaries for new employees. The union is also worried about the possibility that Lufthansa will transfer flight attendants to its partner budget airlines with lower contracts.