Croatia Airlines pilots and cabin crews go on strike over restructuring and pay cuts

ZAGREB, Croatia – Croatia Airlines pilots and flight attendants went on strike Tuesday over planned salary cuts and layoffs that are part of efforts to restructure the loss-making state carrier ahead of the country’s European Union entry.

The indefinite strike cancelled some 25 international and domestic flights scheduled for Tuesday. Most of the passengers who purchased tickets for those flights have been put on ones by other airlines.

The troubled airline that operates 13 planes has largely survived on government subsidies which will no longer be allowed after Croatia joins the EU on July 1. The carrier’s debt is estimated at 150 million euros ($194 million.)

Croatia Airlines management said the company could go bankrupt if it does not cut costs by reducing salaries as proposed in a new collective agreement given to some 1,000 employees. The agreement also proposes fewer rest days for the cabin crews, and limits their vacations during the peak of the summer season.

The striking pilots and flight attendants say the salary cuts would range between 20 and 40 per cent, if they accepted the new agreement.

“I don’t think that salaries are the main reason that the company could go bankrupt,” said Bozidar Andrasek, a pilot union leader. He said wages represent only about 10 to 15 per cent of the company’s current expenses.

Croatia Airlines management threatened to fire 42 flight attendants, a quarter of its cabin crew, after they all took sick leave at the same time earlier this month to protest the proposed cut in their salaries.

“Some cabin attendants would have their salaries cut by 40 per cent,” said Tanja Miric, one of the stewardesses staging a protest in front of the company headquarters near the Zagreb airport on Tuesday. “This company has a potential for success, but I fear that with this management there is no solution for our problems.”

Croatia has faced with a spate of work stoppages as it prepares to become EU’s 28th member. Also announcing strikes are state railroad company workers, as well as public sector employees who are paid from the national budget that has been under EU scrutiny and austerity demands.

Croatia Airlines became a symbol of the country’s drive for independence from Yugoslavia when the company was formed in 1990. Its striking crews said it has good potential for expansion in the tourist-oriented Adriatic Sea country, which has six commercial airports.

“The potential is huge,” Andrasek. “We have good faith in our company.”

The Star Alliance member shares the problems of other national carriers in the Balkan region — including Serbian JAT Airways and Slovenian Adria Airways — which are struggling for survival amid competition from much bigger foreign budget airlines.

Negotiations between the Croatia Airlines unions and the company management on a compromise solution continued on Tuesday.