Deepening the crisis suffered by the global airline industry, Germany based Lufthansa airline has announced laying off 103 of its 140 cabin crew members based in India. The decision comes a year after flights to and from India were restricted on account of the pandemic.
“The airline regrets to confirm that it will not be extending the fixed-term employment contracts of its Delhi-based flight attendants. The severe financial impact of the Coronavirus pandemic leaves Lufthansa no choice but to restructure the airline. This includes personnel-related measures in Germany and Europe as well as in key international markets like India,” said a Lufthansa spokesperson.
“We exhausted every possible option and had even already reached an agreement with the Indian union we were in close consultation at all times. It would have avoided compulsory redundancies for our cabin staff. We had signed an agreement with the Indian union providing for two years of unpaid leave, with Lufthansa continuing to provide the local health insurance – even for enrolled family members."
Expressing dissent over the decision, some of the impacted staff is planning a protest at Delhi Airport’s Aerocity. While Lufthansa presently operates 10 flights to and fro in the region, prior to the pandemic, the weekly frequency was 56 flights between its German hubs of Frankfurt and Munich and four Indian metros.
"Lufthansa was also willing to absorb all associated premiums during this period. Unfortunately, consent to the agreement was revoked by the union on December 31. Indian cabin crew with unlimited contracts are not affected as Lufthansa was able to reach individual agreements with these flight attendants. Not being able to reach an agreement for cabin crew with fixed-term employment contracts forces us to take this step as part of an inevitable restructuring of Lufthansa Group. It should be noted that this restructuring is not limited to India but affects all our worldwide markets and to a great extent includes our home markets, especially Germany. However, there we were able to reach initial agreements with unions to help weather the crisis,” added the spokesperson.
Making travel possible during these times of crisis, several nations began operating flights through air bubbles. In July 2020, India formed an air bubble with Germany. Reportedly, in the initial days of this arrangement, Lufthansa was operating 20 flights a week while Indian carriers were having 3-4 flights a week to Germany. India had objected to this disparity in numbers. As a result of this disagreement over the disparity, Lufthansa had cancelled all its planned India flights between September 30 and October 20, 2020. After this Germany had withdrawn permission for AI to operate flights to Frankfurt in the first half of October, 2020. Later an agreement was reached in October between India and Germany under which Lufthansa was to operate 10 weekly flights to India and Air India seven flights to Germany.
Commenting on the layoffs, an affected employee shared, “Lufthansa has terminated the services of its 103 Indian flight attendants on fixed term contracts based in Delhi overnight citing Covid Pandemic as the reason. No such terminations have happened in Germany or worldwide till date. Lufthansa was granted state aid by the German Government in June 2020. These terminations happened overnight without giving any prior notice. Some of these terminated people had been employed for nearly 15 years.”
The Lufthansa spokesperson highlighted that given their current cash burn of several hundred million euros every month – like all airlines worldwide – the carrier must take steps to secure its future. “Since we must plan with 150 fewer aircraft in the long run (by 2025) it follows that required cabin staff in all our markets is also affected. Even now, low demand for international air travel resulting particularly from government restrictions leaves cabin staff with little or no work left to do.”
While travel has seen a steady uptick, matching the numbers from pre-COVID times remains distant. Airlines, similar to other industries have navigated the last 12 months on the back of extensive cost-cutting measures. Whether these measures will be sufficient to tide out the uncertainties and lag that lies ahead remains to be seen.