Is there anything more stressful than air travel? At a moment’s notice, adverse weather, lost luggage or a missed transfer can turn a normal flight into a Tartarean ordeal. Industrial action by airline staff is a particularly grating area for travellers, as it can frequently seem like an avoidable problem had there been appropriate conflict management. Lufthansa has had a particularly bad year last year for staff strikes with 10 strikes occurring between April and December 2014, including the recent walkout of the cabin crew. The walkouts have been damaging to the company financially costing the company an estimated €200 million last year (Reuters Berlin, 12 January 2015). In December alone, a two-day walkout forced the cancellation of over 1000 flights.

The issue is a long-running one between the German pilots’ union Vereinigun Cockpit (VC) and Lufthansa management over early retirement benefits and low-cost expansion. Lufthansa’s pilots want to maintain a scheme that enables pilots to take early retirement at 55 and still receive a portion of their pay until the regular pension payments begin. VC also oppose the way in which the airline is using a selection of pilots, who are not subject to the same collective labour agreements as its Lufthansa and Germanwings brands, to expand its low-cost operations to win back market share lost to budget airlines.

Thankfully, talks of mediation have been raised between both parties. However, exactly which issues are to be mediated remains an area of contention. The airline welcomed mediation as a way to break the apparent deadlock and a horizon of continued strikes, and accepted discussions concerning early retirement but rejected negotiation over their expansion strategies (that their Board of Directors voted to push forward with in December 2014). In December, the pilots’ union said that they were willing to enter mediation to resolve the dispute, but only if it included discussing all areas of conflict with management. The VC will have a meeting with its members in the coming weeks to discuss potential steps forward.

But what lies ahead in this apparent deadlock? Only time will tell, but there are a range of options available that may change the dynamics of the negotiation, allowing both sides to reach an agreement and preventing costly strikes and further damages to working relationships. One of those is seeing the deadlock as a joint problem which can be solved together. The options are plentiful and could include looking at airline benefit and reward systems more generally, or risk-sharing balances between both sides. These options will only surface through constructive dialogue exploring both parties’ interests. A key deciding factor for both the management and union is saving face for themselves and their members/shareholders to preserve credibility, respect and dignity.  Mediation offers a solution to change the dynamics of the discussions between the negotiating parties. Mediators can help by establishing ground rules for negotiations, assisting in crystallising issues and in stimulating the generation of new ideas to assist in keeping the talks focused and on track to a mutually acceptable conclusion, all under the cloak of confidentiality to preserve working relationships. Lost luggage might be an ongoing battle in air travel, but effective conflict management strategies are the key to keeping planes in the air.

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By Andrew Fiddy

Andrew Fiddy is CEDR’s Programme Manager responsible for the management of international aid-funded dispute resolution and change projects. He has managed projects in the Middle East, North and East Africa, and Central and Eastern Europe for clients that include the International Finance Corporation, World Bank and the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. He is a CEDR accredited mediator and is a conciliator with the Funeral Arbitration Service and the Renewable Energy Association.