Pilots of Colombia’s largest airline Avianca will refuse to work overtime from Friday, likely causing delays of flights across the country.

In an action called “operacion cero trabajo suplementario” (“operation no overtime”), Avianca’s pilots will not fly overtime in protest at the airline’s alleged intransigence over salary increases.

“Many of us have gone three or four years without vacation leave,” said Jose Maria Jaimes, president of the Avianca Pilots Union (ODEAA) in an interview with Blu Radio, adding that many pilots have to work more than 12 hours a day.

“What we want is that [Avianca] understands that we are no longer going to paper over the cracks of the [company’s] broken infrastructure and of the problems associated with the rapid growth of the company, which has resulted in many different sectors failing,” Jaimes said.

According to a statement released on Tuesday by the Colombian Association of Civil Aviators (Acdac) – also representing the pilots – crew members have suffered “from illnesses caused by work conditions and lowered life expectancy due to exposure to… carciogenic substances, family break-ups caused by absentee parents, and a very high percentage of miscarriages, among other problems.”

The quasi-strike comes after pilots failed to reach an agreement with Avianca over a salary increase, despite eight months of talks. An ODEAA press release claims that the pilots were promised a pay raise in 2009, but Avianca have failed to make good on that promise.

Acdac says that the airline’s 900 pilots account for less than 10% of the company’s operational costs, and their proposed salary increase would reduce Avianca’s operational profits by just 2%.

But far from viewing the salary increase as insignificant, Avianca’s president Fabio Villegas has called them “exorbitant” and “impossible.”

“We have put a series of alternatives on the table for an increase of 2 digits, but they haven’t accepted them and are instead calling for an increase of the order of 16 or 40 percent,” he said in an interview with Caracol Radio on Wednesday.

“The claims are exorbitant and cannot be met by the company.”

Villegas added on Wednesday while talking to Blu Radio that Avianca pilots earn between $3500 and $9000 per month, depending on their experience, and that their salaries have seen an increase of up to 48%.

In reference to the overworking of pilots, Villegas claimed that Avianca pilots only spend 75 hours a month in the air, while the average in Colombia is 90.

This is disputed by Jaimes, who was reported in online newspaper Dinero as saying that the 75-hour limit is from eight years ago, before Avianca was bought by Germán Efromovich. He claims that to try and increase productivity for the new owner the pilots agreed to “fly for 90 hours, but the [salary] increase in the last eight years has been minimal, remaining below the salaries of other airlines, despite the fact that the company is now the fifth most productive in the world, as president Fabio Villegas has pointed out.”

News site Dinero backs up Jaimes’ claim by stating that although rival airline LAN Colombia pay their pilots a salary of just $500 more per month than Avianca, their pilots only have to work for 70 hours per month, earning $86 for each hour of overtime. This means that if they worked for the maximum 90 hours they would earn an additional $1720, a total of $2220 more per month than Avianca pilots, or $26,640 more per year.

To deal with “operation zero overtime” the airline claims to have taken four measures: creating a contingency plan for flight schedules, which would increase the time between flights; prioritizing those customers on connecting flights; removing the charge on changing flights for those customers affected; and reinforcing their customer service staff so that any problems can be dealt with efficiently.

Caracol Radio reports that the Colombian government met with Acdac and ODEAA this week to listen to the complaints of the pilots. Vice President Angelino Garzon and the Deputy Minister for Work, Jose Noe Rios, agreed to setup up talks next week between the pilots and Avianca, with the government acting as mediators.

Article by Colombia Reports

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