Commentary: When Undertakers are Taking Over

The pilots union VC have done their utmost to derail Lufthansa. They stubbornly cling to outdated privileges, unwilling to compromise and come to terms with the management. It’s an “us or them” thinking which prevails among the 5,400 VC members. Fortunately, resistance to the pilot’s constant walkouts is growing among Lufthansa’s ground staff.

Constant LH pilot strikes have led to thousands of flight cancellations in recent months, as shown here in Frankfurt  -  photos: hs
Constant LH pilot strikes have led to thousands of flight cancellations in recent months, as shown here in Frankfurt - photos: hs

“Reputation” - a dirty word?
Don’t mention that word in relation to Lufthansa’s pilots. Their reputation has reached a value below zero,” stated the disillusioned MD Dieter Haltmayer of Frankfurt-headquartered forwarding agent Quick Cargo Service when asked to comment on the permanent strikes of the tiny pilot union Vereinigung Cockpit (VC). Many of his company’s shipments booked on board a Lufthansa passenger flight had to be re-routed or turned over to other airlines in order to reach their destination.
Dieter’s view reflects a majority position, supposedly supported by most Lufthansa clients, be it passengers or cargo agents. Also, the broad public shows less and less sympathy for the pilot’s constant walkouts.
The harm caused by the carrier’s egomaniac VC members is huge, in terms of both financial impacts and the German crane’s image that is heavily damaged meanwhile. As result of the exorbitant cost structure Lufthansa Passenger Airline’s fleet is shrinking. A shrinking fleet, however, reduces the number of cockpit jobs. This way, the VC pilots are sawing off the branch they themselves are sitting on.
A rational behavior? Not really!

The carrier’s reliability is at stake
Reliability was, in accord with safety and efficiency, Lufthansa’s brand core for many decades. Not any longer, however. A series of 15 strikes organized since 2014 by the tiny but combative and powerful pilot union VC in line with a number of walkouts initiated by the – also tiny – airline’s cabin crew union Unabhaengige Flugbegleiter Organisation (UFO) have caused the carrier immeasurable damage. And keeps on damaging it even further if this lunacy doesn’t end soon with all sides coming to a sustainable and long-term accord. 
The background of this lasting clash of interests between Lufthansa’s management and the majority of the company’s pilots is easily explained: The carrier’s top level is trying to enforce a number of adjustment processes to reduce Lufthansa’s high cost base and become competitive again, thus securing the future existence of the airline. After all, LH is sandwiched in between Ryanair, Easyjet, Norwegian and other low cost competitors and state subsidized Gulf carriers on long-haul routes. A threatening situation which the pilots seem to ignore completely.

A Lufthansa captain earns between €20,000 and €22,000 each month. That’s not sufficient say the VC lobbyists. They demand a salary increase of 22 percent.
A Lufthansa captain earns between €20,000 and €22,000 each month. That’s not sufficient say the VC lobbyists. They demand a salary increase of 22 percent.

Old privileges outweigh commonsense
Instead of sitting down with the management and negotiating an acceptable compromise, pleasing all sides, the VC pilots defend their old privileges with no if’s or but’s. This they do by opposing all restructuring plans, mainly to prevent developing Eurowings as the group’s own budget carrier where pilots earn less in comparison to their extremely well paid LH colleagues.

The list of benefits the LH masters of the air get is long. It includes the insistence of automatic salary increases (+3 percent per year), highly attractive early retirement options and favourable old-age provisions. Outdated privileges in a world of aviation that has dramatically changed during the last 15 to 20 years, endangering not only LH, but also most of the European legacy carriers that are facing similar pilot resistance to restructuring activities.
Ironically, the early retirement benefits enjoyed by LH pilots also gives some of them the opportunity to spend a further five or six years flying in the front seat of Gulf or other competitors airliners, earning tax free salaries with those same carriers whom they themselves blamed as being unfair competitors beforehand.
So far, the fierce clash of interests has only produced losers, hitting mainly passengers who got stranded somewhere or had to reorganize their travel arrangements. To a somehow lesser degree, cargo clients were affected as well, since many of their goods were not flown as booked, although LH Cargo’s freighters were exempt from the walkout. Thirdly, a huge workload of extra duties was laid on the shoulders of Lufthansa’s ground staff who are the ones taking care of stranded passengers, arranging accommodation in hotels, rearranging flight schedules and other obligations to keep the company running as best they can.
Due to the constant industrial actions provoked by a selfish group, thousands of LH ground employees were forced to work overtime, attempting to repair the worst damages caused by the VC.

Is there a solution in sight?
But, does a tiny, destructive and egocentric group deserve to put the union label on their chest? We very much doubt this, because history shows that traditional trade unions, although sometimes acting out-of-hand in order to reach their goals, have always been constructive and willing to compromise at the end of the day.
In contrast, the Lufthansa pilots who have reached the formal status of a union but behave like undertakers, are permanently torpedoing the ship that secures their salaries and - up to now - exorbitant privileges.
How stubborn must one be to destroy such a setting by ruining the company and jeopardize thousands of jobs that depend on the well-being of their employer.
The right answer to the continuous blind flight of the VC hardliners was the demonstration of Lufthansa's ground staff against their pilot "colleagues" last week, thus drawing clear boundaries.

Heiner Siegmund

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