Philippine Airlines tries to lure back renegade pilots

MANILA, Tuesday 3 August 2010 (AFP) - Philippine Airlines was on Tuesday desperately trying to lure back pilots who suddenly quit for higher paying jobs abroad in synchronised moves that forced the national carrier to cut flights.

Aides of President Benigno Aquino were involved in crisis talks, amid fears a situation that has so far mainly affected domestic flights could hit international services causing knock-on damage to the national economy.

The airline said Tuesday it had been forced to cut three domestic routes indefinitely after 25 pilots and first officers walked out last week to take higher-paid jobs in the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia.

"We want them all back," PAL president Jaime Bautista said on local ABS-CBN television, although he stressed the company could not compete with the hefty salaries offered by airlines abroad.

He said PAL was able to pay its top pilots only about 11,000 dollars a month, while overseas rivals were offering double that.

PAL has been beset by growing labour unrest for months with ground crews and flight attendants also threatening strikes.

PAL has accused the pilots of violating an airline rule requiring them to give 180 days' notice before resigning, and has threatened legal action if they do not return.

However none of the pilots who quit have spoken publicly, and Bautista said some had already left for their new jobs overseas.

Aquino at the weekend ordered his cabinet to intervene in the dispute.

"Hopefully we will be able to come up with a resolution, so that the riding public is not inconvenienced and the economy does not suffer because of what is an inter-company dispute," Aquino told reporters on Sunday.

PAL chairman Lucio Tan and senior airline executives held talks Tuesday for the second consecutive day with the four cabinet ministers assigned by Aquino to resolve the crisis.

Pilots' representatives joined the meetings for the first time Tuesday, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda told reporters.

Lacierda said the government's top priority was to have the two sides talk so that they could resolve the crisis themselves.

Aside from the immediate issue of the 25 pilots suddenly quitting, the pilots' union also complained that its members were being forced to sign less attractive contracts with PAL's budget subsidiary.

Lacierda said Tourism Minister Alberto Lim had expressed concern that PAL's troubles would further hurt the Philippines' aviation safety rating, after a 2008 downgrade by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

PAL flights to the US West Coast are among its most profitable routes, but plans to increase frequencies were scuttled by the FAA downgrade.

"That was the concern of Secretary Bert Lim -- the downgrade by the FAA. That will be addressed," Lacierda said.

However Bautista emphasised Tuesday that services to the United States were not immediately in jeopardy.

"We would like to assure you that we will not cancel flights to the US," Bautista said.

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