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Air France says 77% of flights maintained amid pilot strike

[PARIS] Air France, hobbled by a strike involving more than a quarter of its pilots, said about 80 per cent of its flights would operate on Sunday and Monday.

Air France-KLM Group's French arm will honor 83 per cent of its scheduled long-haul flights and 86 per cent of its domestic ones on Sunday, the company said in a statement. On Monday, more than 85 per cent will operate in both those categories, it said, adding that last-minute cancellations or delays were still possible.

In a labour walkout that coincides with the start of the European soccer championship, which France is hosting, pilots are protesting the carrier's imposition of more work hours without additional pay and pushing it to order 26 long-haul planes. Pilots only stop working for periods of about three hours three times a day, Emmanuel Mistrali, a spokesman for the largest pilot union, said by telephone.

"Our goal is that our demands are heard, not to stifle the company," he said on Saturday. The union, called by its acronym SNPL, estimates that 70 per cent of employees have partly stopped working.

Ten cities across France are welcoming 2.5 million spectators for the Euro tournament that began Friday. The flight cancellations add to railroaders, energy workers and garbage collectors' work stoppages due to other disputes, including over the French government's labor reform.

The conflict may cost the airline tens of millions of euros, Air France-KLM Chief Executive Officer Alexandre de Juniac said last week. A pilots' strike in 2014 cost the company about 500 million euros (US$563 million) in lost revenue. Even so, meeting unions' demands would require an 11 per cent jump in the pilot payroll, currently about 1 billion euros, Gilles Gateau, the carrier's head of personnel, said on Thursday.

Pilots are also protesting the transfer of some flights from Air France to Dutch sister brand KLM. SNPL asks the company to "repatriate flights" to Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris "rather than Amsterdam, so as to give work to pilots, stewards and ground staff" of Air France, SNPL head Philippe Evain told Europe 1 radio on Saturday. There was "no massive transfer of capacity" to KLM, Air France CEO Frederic Gagey replied on the air a few minutes later.

The SNPL says there is no meeting with Air France scheduled before Tuesday. "We haven't been contacted by the senior management," Mr Mistrali said. "I would rather be sitting around a table to negotiate with them than discussing figures at this moment." To maintain service, Air France has turned to part-time pilots, for instance managers and trainers who are authorized to fly, and chartered out "a few" flights that couldn't be rescheduled, according to a spokesman.

The conflict stands in contrast with the agreements reached between KLM and its employees, who agreed on spending-reduction measures without halting work. The current Air France strike prompted Amsterdam-based KLM to take the unprecedented step of publicly criticizing it as "destructive."