A strike by ground workers for Deutsche Lufthansa seeking higher pay has forced the airline to cancel hundreds of flights at its Frankfurt international hub and Munich, with many cargo shipments expected to be delayed.
The labor action is the latest setback for European airports where airlines have proactively canceled passenger and cargo flights, or rescheduled them for less busy periods, to help cope with congestion caused by a crush of travelers overwhelming an understaffed aviation system.
Lufthansa (DXE: LHA) said it had to cancel 32 flights on Tuesday and 646 on Wednesday in Frankfurt, as well as 345 total flights in Munich, affecting 132,000 passengers. But shippers are also victims of the work stoppage by the United Services Trade Union, or ver.di.
“We are monitoring the situation very closely and taking measures to maintain cargo operations for our customers in the best possible way,” Lufthansa spokesperson Jacqueline Casini said in an email message. “We are in close communication with all parties involved in order to avoid delays or flight cancellations of freighters. However, it is currently difficult to estimate how many of our ground employees at Lufthansa Cargo will respond to the strike call.”
In a notice to customers, Lufthansa Cargo said its freighters are expected to operate as scheduled during the strike period, provided no operational adjustments are needed at short notice. The cargo division said it is not accepting live animals, ornamental fish, worms or crab larvae at the Munich facility on Wednesday and Thursday.
Shipments booked during the strike period as belly cargo in passenger planes will be rebooked, Casini said.
The German flag carrier warned that the effects of the strike may lead to individual flight cancellations or delays on Thursday and Friday.
The strike comes during the height of vacation season in Germany.
Lufthansa said the union has rejected its offer of increased pay, including an extra $152 per month in basic pay retroactive to July 1 and an additional $101 each month starting in January, plus a 2% increase in compensation as of July 2023. The airline also said it wants to focus on employees in lower-earning jobs and would increase the minimum wage to $13.22 per hour, effective Oct. 1.
Company officials criticized ver.di for going on strike after only two days of negotiations in the face of a potential recession and while the airline still tries to recover from the COVID crisis that left it with high debt.
“The early escalation of a previously constructive collective bargaining round is causing enormous damage,” said Michael Niggemann, Lufthansa’s chief human resources officer and labor director. “It affects our passengers in particular, who are impacted during the peak travel season. And it is putting an additional heavy strain on our employees in an already difficult phase for air traffic. In view of our high offer with very substantial pay increases over the next 12 months of more than 10% more in the pay groups up to 3,000 euros [$3,050] monthly basic pay and a 6% increase for a monthly basic pay of 6,500 euros, this so-called warning strike in the middle of the peak summer travel season is simply no longer proportionate.”
Airlines and service providers in Europe and the U.S. have not been able to rehire staff fast enough to deal with the surge in travel demand, a situation compounded by infrastructure limitations. Operations in Frankfurt have also been slowed by many workers calling in sick. Several European airports have temporarily instituted daily flight caps to minimize last-minute cancellations.
Fraport, the Frankfurt airport operator, last week reduced the number of takeoffs and landings to 88 per hour to stabilize flight operations.
Sweeping flight cancellations have “knock-on effects on cargo because so much volume is in the belly” of passenger planes, said David Emerson, senior vice president for e-commerce at Chicago-based Seko Logistics, during a media briefing last week on supply chain conditions.
Ground handling agents at major airports are facing heavy backlogs of cargo in their terminals, with shipments delayed one to two days before being released to customers and trucks stuck waiting up to 10 hours, according to logistics providers.
Congestion has been a drag on air cargo throughput in Europe most of the year. Shipping demand is down slightly from last year’s peak, but shipping delays that push back aircraft loading are contributing to lower volumes.