Pilots strike a kick to World Cup

PARIS (AP) — Normally, a strike by Air France pilots would merely cause havoc.
Monday’s walkout created something even worse: deep embarrassment for a country about to host the world’s biggest sporting event — World Cup soccer.
Despite pressure from the government, most of the state-run carrier’s 3,200 pilots stayed out of the cockpit to protest $83 million in annual pay cuts. They are threatening to stay out for two weeks or more.
That’s well into the World Cup, which starts June 10 and lasts a month. Alarmed, the U.S. soccer team members lined up fall-back transportation — buses.
On Monday, 100,000 would-be passengers in France were sent scrambling.
Desperate travelers lined ticket counters at Paris airports while the Air France planes they were supposed to take, many colorfully painted with soccer players for the championship, sat idle.
Glances at the messages flashing in bright red on the departure screens brought only more discouragement: “Annule” alternated with “Cancelled.”
Nicolas Minvelle, hoping to leave on vacation for Senegal, said it wasn’t fair the pilots were striking just before the World Cup, being played in 10 cities across France.
“They use an international event to bother everyone. It’s too bad,” he said at Charles de Gaulle Airport.
The walkout, which would be Air France’s longest in 27 years if it lasts the projected two weeks, was an embarrassing blow to the leftist government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
The airline, the official carrier for the World Cup, has promised to make good on its commitment to fly World Cup teams. But on Monday, it canceled 90 percent of long-haul flights and most short- and medium-haul flights.
The airports in Lyon and Marseille, France’s second- and third-largest cities, were virtually deserted Monday. Rental car agencies did a brisk business.
At Paris’ other main airport, Orly, Air France had arranged for Vince Narez and his wife to take a Northwest Airlines flight back to California. “We’re not very happy about it, but we want to get home,” said Narez, of San Jose.
The U.S. Soccer Federation is sending the U.S. team Thursday on an American Airlines flight to Paris that connects to an Air France flight to Lyon. As a backup, the Americans have rented buses for all their travel plans in France.
“After the draw, everyone was scared,” federation president Alan Rothenberg said Monday. “We’ve gone out and spent to set up our own system of built-in redundancies to take care of ourselves.”
Passengers “are being taken hostage,” said the French passenger association, known by its acronym, ADUA.
It called the walkout by the pilots, who are among the highest-paid in the world, “a strike by the privileged of the skies.”
The strike hurts France’s image and offends taxpayers who paid billions of dollars to bail out the once-struggling airline, the group said, urging anti-strike demonstrations in the airports.
Air France, meanwhile, announced a meeting with the pilots’ union for Tuesday afternoon — the first since talks failed Thursday.
The pilots are protesting plans to save $83 million through salary cuts while offering pilots shares in the airline. They also are angry about plans to lower the starting pay for newly hired pilots.
Christian Paris, a spokesman for the union leading the strike, the SNPL, conceded the strike’s consequences were “disastrous.”
“But when you’re confronted by an attack you have no choice but to defend yourself,” he told France 2 television.