About 1000 Air New Zealand flight attendants are today launching the first of a wave of 48-hour strikes, forcing the airline to cancel about 30 per cent of long-haul flights.
The airline says about 15,000 passengers will be disrupted by three strikes between now and midnight next Monday, during which it is cancelling 85 flights - 45 outward and 40 to New Zealand.
It also warns that some surviving flights normally leaving Auckland for overseas may face delays by being re-routed through Christchurch, to enable more staff to be rostered within constraints of what it calls an unusually "aggressive" union strike notice.
International division general manager Ed Sims said yesterday that these staff would include some Christchurch members of the Flight Attendants and Related Service Association, which issued the notice, as well as about 150 non-union staff and 100 represented by another union.
"This is one of the most aggressive and significant strike notices I can remember but it gives us the opportunity to work out of Christchurch."
Mr Sims said the airline had gone to great lengths to protect high-season travel plans of passengers flying to and from the United States and Europe, and of New Zealanders with school-holiday packages booked in Australia or the Pacific.
An unfortunate consequence was that Asian routes would be "stretched", but he said these were relatively lightly patronised at this time of year.
"We have been through our flights with a fine-tooth comb to affect as few people as possible."
Mr Sims said the airline had made a "very fair" pay offer, including a wage rise of 3.3 per cent to be followed by 3.4 per cent next year and 3.3 per cent in 2007, and was prepared to keep discussing union claims for more leave and meal allowances.
The union is seeking a 3.8 per cent increase for each of the three years, and is also battling for more crewing jobs, particular on new Boeing 777 aircraft which Air New Zealand is due to start flying in September.
It issued a statement yesterday challenging full-page advertising in several newspapers in which the airline warns that the union demands would "inevitably see the price of travel increase".
Describing crewing levels as a health and safety issue, the union's international executive said these were of prime importance for all involved in long-haul travel, and higher fares might not be inevitable.
"Appropriate steps to meet health and safety concerns for crew and, in turn, service expectations of customers of the airline, should not in the union's view be compromised," it said.
The decision to strike was not made lightly, and the union regretted any inconvenience, it said.
Mr Sims said the union's pay claim would add $14.2 million to the company's payroll bill over three years, compared with about $7.5 million on offer to the flight attendants.
He acknowledged that the six days of strikes would cost the airline up to $2 million, even after operating savings, but said this was a one-off loss, whereas the pay claim would compound over the years.
Union industrial officer Heather Stanley said the amount in dispute was "small change" in terms of the airline's overall budget, and issues such as aircraft crewing levels were probably more important to her members.
Although the airline insists its crewing levels are above minimum standards of the International Air Transport Association, Ms Stanley said other carriers operated Boeing 777s with "significantly more" staff than proposed by Air NZ.