Strike grounds flights in Germany

BERLIN - Air passengers in Germany faced delays, disruption and hundreds of flight cancellations across the country Thursday as ground staff, baggage handlers and maintenance workers walked out over pay.

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But Fraport, the company which operates Germany's biggest airport in Frankfurt, insisted that the situation for passengers was far from chaotic because passengers had been warned in advance and were able to make alternative travel arrangements.

Lufthansa, Germany's biggest airline and hardest hit by the strike, on Wednesday announced that it would cancel around 600 of its European and domestic flights until 2pm (8pm Thai time).

In Frankfurt alone -- Lufthansa's hub -- Fraport said some 550 flights had been cancelled out of a total of 1,300 scheduled morning arrivals and departures.

The strikes are being organised by the giant services sector union Verdi and follows a series of walkouts in a number of public service sectors, such as local transport networks, in recent weeks.

"Workers are sending a clear signal to employers," a union spokeswoman told AFP.

Verdi is seeking pay increases of 100 euros (4,450 baht) a month for 2.1 million employees in regional and municipal public service sectors, plus an additional pay hike of 3.5%.

According to employers' calculations, this amounts to an overall pay increase of 7%.

Strikes have brought public transport networks to a standstill for two days in row in regional states such as Berlin, Hamburg, Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg. Other services, such as kindergartens, have also been affected.

Despite Thursday's walkouts at airports, however, the situation appears to be calm and airlines insist that the impact so far has remained limited.

Air Berlin, Germany's second biggest airline, listed only a small number of six cancellations of flights from the major airports on its website.

Air France also said it would not be greatly affected with just a single flight to Cologne-Bonn airport cancelled so far.

And Italy's Alitalia said it did not expect any disruptions.

"It's all very calm. The airport and the airlines have mobilised additional staff to help passengers," a Fraport spokesman said.

The pay of more than 9,000 Fraport employees is aligned to public service sector agreements.

A spokesman for Munich airport, the country's second-biggest, said 130 flights had been cancelled so far, mostly by Lufthansa.

In order to limit the anticipated chaos, airlines have been advising passengers to check online before travelling.

And Fraport has advised passengers booked on the cancelled flights not to bother turning up at all.

National rail operator, Deutsche Bahn, is mobilising additional staff to cope with the expected increase in rail traffic as air passengers take the train instead.

Under an agreement between the rail operator and the airlines, passengers holding valid tickets for domestic flights on Lufthansa, Germanwings or Air Berlin can swap them for train tickets.

While Verdi is planning further action on Friday, "the biggest walkouts are over and airports will not be affected" tomorrow, a union spokeswoman said.

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