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Aviation

Quiet at Cologne Bonn Airport as Eurowings, Germanwings strike

A 24-hour strike has grounded flights across Germany, leaving thousands of passengers stranded, severely delayed or rerouted. At Cologne Bonn Airport, most folks seemed disappointed but resigned.

On Thursday, Terminal 1 was extra quiet at Cologne Bonn Airport, from where 10 million passengers depart annually to more than 100 destinations in 30-some countries, making it the country's highest-growth airport by passenger volume. Lufthansa subsidiaries Eurowings and Germanwings have helped drive that growth. But plenty of their planes weren't going anywhere during a 24-hour cabin crew strike set to end at 12 a.m. Friday (2200 UTC).

"What can I do?" said Diego Ponticello, who showed up at 5 for the 6:25 a.m. flight to Milan. He flashed a new ticket for the same time on Friday and said he had nowhere to go and that the airline could not offer him help in Italian, though Portuguese and French were offered. He didn't blame the flight attendants or their union, UFO, for calling the strike. "Germany, Italy - it happens," he said. "But a guy can't be in the airport all day."

Ponticello was one of the thousands of passengers traveling within Europe who were forced to change their travel plans on Thursday. In addition to Cologne Bonn, the cabin crew walkout canceled 380 flights to and from Düsseldorf, Dortmund, Hanover, Stuttgart, Berlin and Hamburg. Most of the canceled flights were within Germany, allowing Eurowings to put a number of passengers on long-haul trains to their next stops. No overseas routes were affected, according to the airlines and the union.

'No alternative'

Flight attendants are calling for better wages and working conditions and an agreement on the terms of part-time contracts for one of the most physically and emotionally depleting jobs in the travel industry. International studies reveal that flight attendants often face chronic stress and sleep deprivation and have higher reported incidences of heart disease, depression and hearing loss than the population at large.

"We regret that this escalation is necessary," UFO board member Nicoley Baublies said in a statement announcing Thursday's walkout. "But negotiations reached a point at which there is no alternative to a strike."

Thousands of flights have been canceled in recent years, as German workers withhold their efforts in a constant battle to improve their conditions. In April, the public sector union Ver.di succeeded in having more than 1,300 flights canceled in a strike by airline ground staff - about 900 of those flights belonged to the Lufthansa Group. Almost exactly a year before, cabin crews for Germany's flagship carrier stayed home, keeping 1,000 flights on the ground. From 2014 to 2015, the Lufthansa pilots' union, Cockpit, launched multiple multiday strikes, canceling several thousand flights. In 2014, German rail lines were also halted as the train drivers' union launched a series of strikes on services run by the national carrier, Deutsche Bahn.

"It happens so often that when you go to Germany you don't know if you're going to get back next week," said Eva Grosschedl, who had stopped in Cologne to change planes on her return flight from Oman to Vienna only to find that there would not be a plane to change to. She thought it would be better not to strike and to let business do its thing.

Staff at the Eurowings and Germanwings administration building at Cologne Bonn Airport appeared to share that sentiment, hanging banners from their windows that sarcastically thanked cabin crew colleagues "in the name of Ryanair," the carriers' budget competitor from Ireland. And the upper management called the walkout "disproportionate," claiming that the dispute only affects a small number of workers. "A call to strike because of a disagreement over temporary contracts is incomprehensible and absurd," Lufthansa spokesman Martin Leutke said in a statement.

Inconvenienced as they were, most folks who had intended to begin or end their holidays at Cologne Bonn Airport on Thursday didn't quite seem ready to blame the workers. "Is the strike right?" said Hans-Peter Kohlemann, who with his wife would head back to Bonn rather than off to Rome after delaying their travel plans to Sunday. "I can't say." But he was content that they had "made the best from the worst - flying is normally a horror anyway."

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