Air France threatens job cuts triggering 'violent' protest

PARIS - Air France-KLM unveiled a new restructuring plan on Monday threatening 2,900 job cuts after pilots for the struggling airline refused to accept longer flying hours, triggering a "violent" protest at a board meeting.

Four unions called a strike to coincide with the launch of the plan at a central committee meeting early Monday, which was interrupted when several hundred workers stormed in to the airline's headquarters in Roissy, just outside Paris.

Human resources manager Xavier Broseta "was almost lynched" and had to climb over some barriers to escape, said one union delegate.

CEO Frederic Gagey made a hasty exit, according to two members of the committee, and the meeting was expected to resume a few hours later.

The management condemned the "physical violence" in a statement, and said it would file police complaints.

It had previously insisted that all flights would go ahead on Monday albeit with "some delays," notably at check-in.

The airline is struggling in the face of fierce competition from global rivals and had tried to convince pilots, who earn up to 250,000 euros (S$399.340) a year, to fly 100 more hours annually for the same salary.

The talks broke down last week, with pilots saying the plan amounted to an effective pay cut, prompting management to lay out the "alternative" version involving job cuts.

Some cuts could be compulsory - a first for the carrier.

Unions blasted management on Friday for pressing ahead with a revised plan after carrying out a "parody" of negotiations.

But the French government, which owns a 17.6-percent stake, has criticised the pilots, with Prime Minister Manuel Valls denouncing their "hard-line" attitude.

"If Air France does not evolve then it puts itself in danger," Valls said at the weekend.

'Last resort'

The loss-making airline, which is Europe's largest in terms of traffic and employs 52,000 people, says its alternative plan is designed "to guarantee the economic objectives and the company's future".

Seeking to sharpen its competitive edge against main European rivals Lufthansa and British Airways-Iberia, the measures include a 10-percent reduction of long-haul flights and a delay in its orders for Boeing 787s.

Chief executive Alexandre de Juniac insisted Friday he favoured voluntary departures and that forced layoffs would be a case of "last resort".

But Gagey has indicated redundancies are "a possibility" as "otherwise we would not make hoped-for progress in terms of productivity".

Sources at Monday's meeting said the plan includes the possibility of dismissing 300 pilots, 900 air hostesses and stewards, and 1,700 ground staff.

Gagey also said the carrier would off-load five long-haul planes in 2016 from its fleet of 107, and nine more the year after.

The company already shed 5,500 posts via voluntary departures between 2012 and 2014 as it battled competition from low-cost carriers and Gulf airlines.

Pilots were also behind a record-long two-week strike in September 2014, which knocked 416 million euros off turnover and was described as "catastrophic for the French aviation sector" in a joint statement from key industry unions.

The striking pilots opposed the expansion of Air France's low-cost subsidiary Transavia.

Air France, which merged with Netherlands-based KLM in 2004, is now expected to retire 14 long-haul planes and reduce flights as it seeks to cut costs over two years by 1.8 billion euros.