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Taiwan's China Airlines pilot strike grounds thousands of passengers during busy New Year holiday

Taiwan's China Airlines pilot strike grounds thousands of passengers during busy New Year holiday
Representatives from 60 trade unions rally to support striking pilots of Taiwan's China Airlines on Feb. 11 in Taipei, Taiwan. (David Chang / EPA/Shutterstock)

A strike by pilots of Taiwan’s flagship international airline has left some 20,000 passengers without flights toward the end of a major holiday week as bargaining has produced no results.

About 600 of the 900 unionized China Airlines pilots have refused to work since Friday, grounding scores of scheduled flights. The pilots went on strike because their bargaining unit, Pilots Union Taoyuan, could not persuade the airline to ease workloads and raise pay, union board director Chen Pei-pei said.

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The strike had forced cancellation of 80 flights as of Monday and cost China Airlines $34 million in business, the company said in a statement to the Taiwan Stock Exchange. Some of the money has gone to compensating the passengers on cancelled flights, including on the Taipei-Los Angeles and Taipei-Vancouver routes.

Labor strikes are rare in Taiwan compared to in Western countries because companies normally discourage unions, said John Brebeck, senior advisor at the Quantum International Corp. investment consultancy in Taiwan. “My sense is that all the power lies with the corporates,” Brebeck said.

But pilots can make more demands on employers in Taiwan because good ones are scarce, he said.

The striking China Airlines pilots are demanding “full” rather than “basic” salaries for the equivalent of a 13th month each year, a threefold increase, Chen said.

They have further asked the airline to ease on-the-job fatigue by allowing crews of four people on all flights of more than 12 hours and three people for all eight-hour journeys, Chen said. Safety was an issue for China Airlines after 18 crashes and other mishaps between 1969 and 2007, and airline spokesman Jason Liu said Tuesday the company was open to “making adjustments” to crew sizes.

But the pilots keep adding demands, lengthening the negotiation process, Liu said. “Their demands keep shifting, so we have to go back and see whether we have resources and ability to meet them,” he said.

The union and the airline suspended negotiations Monday. “We’re not optimistic,” Chen said. “We’ve been talking to the company since 2017 when we first applied for adjustments. The company never made a deal with us.”

Some pilots have opted to keep working, allowing the airline to operate 90% of its normal number of flights, Liu said. But the union board director suspects China Airlines is using contract pilots or nonunionized foreign nationals.

The strike’s first three days hit the end of a nine-day Lunar New Year vacation, but the airline says it put a lot of bumped passengers onto flights of other carriers.

Most China Airlines counters were deserted on an otherwise busy Tuesday morning at a departure hall in Taiwan's chief airport in Taoyuan City.

China Airlines, founded in 1959, normally runs about 1,400 flights weekly to more than 100 cities.

Taiwan’s last memorable mass work stoppage took place in July 2017 when 500 flight attendants from Taiwan’s other major carrier, Eva Airways, asserted their right to take a day off due to a typhoon threat. Their action forced the cancellation of 50 flights, adding to those already spiked or delayed because of the weather.

Jennings is a special correspondent.

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