The striking cabin crew union’s strategic secrecy has surprised throngs of customers and led Lufthansa to prepare for the worst. Jeffrey Michels reports from the Frankfurt Airport.
Lufthansa is no stranger to strikes - its pilots halted service ten times in 2014 alone. But the cabin crew strike starting today portends to open a new chapter in the airlines' attempt to stay competitive at the expense of its workers.
UFO, the Independent Flight Attendants Union, has kept quiet and continued to negotiate changes to its members' benefits while the pilots repeatedly went on strike. Yet after two years of frustration, its 19,000 workers are taking to the picket line, too, in what has the potential to be the largest and longest strike in the company's history.
It certainly didn't seem like it could be, though.
At the Frankfurt Airport, where Lufthansa runs its largest number of flights, the terminal was calm. The departure board reported no cancellations. No one was panicking at any of the hundreds of Lufthansa counters.
This is because UFO is employing an interesting tactic in its strike - keeping its plans secret for as long as possible. The strike was announced Monday, declared officially yesterday, and given a general outline – listing only which airports, not which flights would be affected – this morning, only six hours before it was to come into effect.
As Lufthansa doesn't know which flights will be grounded, it must prepare for all of them to be.
“All Lufthansa passengers therefore must expect that their flight could be cancelled on short notice,” union chief Nicolay Baublies explained.
To fly or not to fly
Today's confusion begins at the Lufthansa check-in counter. I ask a worker if he knows which flights will be canceled. “Yes,” he says, confidently briefed, “flights after 14:00.” Every flight? He hesitates. “I'm not sure.” I ask him what is he expecting today? Again: “I'm not sure.”
The yellow word “annuliert” – cancelled – began trickling onto the flight board a little after 11:00. Lufthansa rolled out a free snack cart shortly thereafter.
A long row of counters were soon repurposed for customers to change their flights. Its line – flanked by purple-vested members of Lufthansa's “passenger irregularity team” – quickly outnumbered those waiting to check-in.
One passenger had come into Frankfurt for a stopover from a business trip in Poland when he found out about his cancellation. “I'm a bit disappointed they didn't tell me before I left. In Poland they didn't say anything, they just gave me my boarding pass.”
“I want to go home to Vienna," said another customer, "but I don't think I'm coming home today." He added: “It's like Kazakhstan, or Italy, or Athens. So many strikes.”
By the time of the strike's official start, the wait to rebook was well over an hour. Many passengers would have to be put into a hotel for the night to try again the next day, with no guarantee that they would be any luckier then. One group tried to make the most of it, belting songs and playing games.
Cutting edge or chopping board?
Under pressure to keep up with a rapidly changing airline market, Lufthansa has been undergoing a thorough restructuring of its operations. It is challenged on two fronts: by the surge of bare-bones, low-cost airlines within Europe, such as RyanAir and easyJet, on one end, and by the advance of international carriers with lower overheads outside of Europe, such as Emirates and Turkish Airlines, on the other.
To compete, analysts have urged the company to cut back on its largest expense beyond fuel – labor. CEO Carsten Spohr, who assumed his position in 2014 amid sinking profit projections, has pushed forward with the suggestions.
Central to the company's strategy is the expansion of its own low-cost subsidiary Eurowings, whose cheaper tickets are made possible by reducing spending on its employees. The pilots' union sought to halt the expansion of Eurowings, until its strikes were deemed illegal by a German court for meddling in company strategy.
Learning from this lesson, UFO has focused its demands on its members' benefits most threatened by the expansion – chiefly pensions – instead of the expansion itself.
Value versus values
Where does customers' loyalty lie? With the workers, who would like a reason to serve with a genuine smile? Or with the company, who would like to get their customers where they need to be as cheaply as possible?
On top of the economic damage it can wreak, the fate of the strike lies in this answer. UFO knows this and is aware of the need to win over sympathy. Its task is to convince customers that the crew members are striking not out of choice, but because Lufthansa has made its own choice and refuses to budge.
So the union has railed this week against what is sees as Lufthansa's propaganda. In press statements in the lead-up to the strike, the company reiterated that it was offering everything that the union was demanding. The union intensely denies this, calling successive offers “purely PR gags” and “old wine in new bottles.”
In any case, like many travelers before it, the message may be getting lost in the massive Frankfurt Airport. Asked what he thought about the striker's demands, one customer in line to rebook his flight replied, “Oh, I didn't know there was a strike.”
While people wait for the confusion to clear, one thing is certain: This won't be the last of it. This very week Lufthansa entered into negotiations with another union, Verdi, representing the company's labor on the ground and in cargo planes, about 33,000 workers in total.