Hard-Line Air France Pilot Union Chief Loses Re-Election Bid

(Bloomberg) -- The leader of a French pilots’ union who emerged as a poster boy for strikes at Air France has lost his bid for re-election within the group, heralding a possible unblocking of labor talks at the troubled carrier.

Philippe Evain, head of the airline’s powerful SNPL union, lost a majority in an election that ended Tuesday, a union spokesman said by phone. The charismatic pilot was one of the strongest forces behind efforts to win a better pay deal for pilots, even if it meant walkouts.

The SNPL pilots, along with flight attendants, are holdouts in efforts by Air France-KLM’s new Chief Executive Officer Ben Smith to end a bruising labor dispute that led to 15 days of strikes this year, the departure of his predecessor and hundreds of millions of euros in lost profit. In October, Smith reached an agreement with a majority of French unions for a 4 percent pay raise over two years at the French arm, Air France. The SNPL refused to sign and was asking for more.

A spokeswoman for the company said talks with pilots and cabin crew representatives are continuing. She declined to provide details.

Evain was considered to be among the most hard line of the union leaders at the carrier’s French arm. Cockpit crew generally hold significant sway during disputes because they have the most power to ground planes. A global shortage of pilots has put pressure on airlines to pay them more.

‘Proud of Results’

He took the helm of SNPL in 2014 and was one of the backers of another headline-grabbing dispute in 2015 when executives had their shirts ripped after scaling an industrial fence to escape enraged workers.

“We are proud of our results,” he said by phone Tuesday, adding that his team “participated” in the appointment of Smith. He said he would continue to work as an “opposition” force within the union.

Evain was pushing for a total pay increase for pilots of around 10 percent. Management has so far refused the raise, asking that it should be compensated by other measures such as lower entry-level salaries, he has said.

SNPL will formally elect a new president for its Air France branch Thursday. The group that won the most votes Tuesday wants to address in talks with management issues such as pilot working conditions, the airline’s new strategy and flight safety. SNPL, which represents a majority of pilots at Air France, will face off against other pilot unions in companywide elections in three months.

Smith will need pilots’ support for any strategy moves, such as expanding Air France-KLM’s low-cost offering or deciding to close discount unit Joon.

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