Lufthansa pilots began the biggest strike in the airline's history yesterday, grounding most of its flights for the next three days and leaving as many as 425,000 passengers without a connection.
The airline cancelled about 3,800 flights for yesterday, today and tomorrow as a result of the walkout by pilots who are demanding better pay and retirement conditions. Among those cancelled were 11 flights to and from Hong Kong.
The strike also affects the airline's Germanwings subsidiary and its freight carrier Lufthansa Cargo. Germany's biggest carrier estimated the walkout would cost "tens of millions of euros".
In a bid to avert chaos, Lufthansa has been keeping passengers up to date about flight changes via text message or e-mail and offering to re-book them onto other airlines.
Watch: Lufhansa pilot strike strands over 425,000 passengers
Nevertheless, the situation at Frankfurt airport, Germany's largest, remained calm yesterday, with few queues at check-in terminals. Flights that were operating proceeded normally.
"The aim is that people don't turn up at the airport for nothing," Lufthansa spokeswoman Barbara Schaedler said.
About 60 flights were already cancelled on Tuesday so that passengers changing planes would not find themselves stranded.
"We've hit the jackpot because we're on one of the flights that's still going," Claudio Valent, 54, who'd come to Frankfurt for a trade fair, said. "In Italy, we're used to strikes but we didn't expect it in Germany."
Germanwings said it planned to uphold about 600 connections over the three-day period by leasing capacity from other airlines.
The head of the pilots' union Cockpit, Joerg Handwerg, writing in the local daily Neue Passauer Presse, said the walkout was "the only means to force management to compromise".
He wrote that Lufthansa's hardline stance was to blame, as it sought to push back the age - now 55 - at which pilots were able to take early retirement.
Markus Wahl, board member of pilots' union Vereinigung Cockpit , said the airline's move was a "massive attack on our social rights". "We have to send out a clear message," he said.
But there seems to be little public sympathy for the pilots.
And the industrial action has angered many politicians, even in government, with Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt complaining in an interview that "every day of strike is impairing the mobility of hundreds of thousands of people."
And the deputy head of the parliamentary faction of the conservative CDU party, Michael Fuchs, slammed the action as "irresponsible."
There has also been criticism of the pilots from the centre-left Social Democrat party.
"The strike is totally excessive and will cause immense damage, not only for the tourism and travel industry, but for the economy as a whole," said Stefan Vorndran at the DRV industry federation.
Frankfurt airport operator Fraport slammed the industrial action. "This is the third strike in six weeks at Frankfurt airport," Fraport chief executive Stefan Schulte said.
"All of this industrial action hits thousands of passengers and damages our reputation as an air hub," he said.
Brad Doble, managing director of Munich-based branding consultants Lambie-Nairn, said the strike would make passengers think twice about booking with Lufthansa in future.
"You can't just cancel over 400,000 people's flights and not think that it's going to affect the brand," he said.
"Loyalty in the airline industry is fickle, it's a commoditised industry."
Just last week, hundreds of flights were cancelled at airports across the country as ground staff, baggage handlers and maintenance workers walked out over pay.
The strikes were staged by the giant services sector union Verdi and follow a series of walkouts across public services such as local transport in recent weeks.
Additional reporting by Reuters
Kosovo man takes flight attendant hostage on Lufthansa flight
A Kosovo man took a flight attendant hostage on a Lufthansa airliner but surrendered to police after a brief stand-off, police said.
German media said a 50-year-old flight attendant suffered cuts after the man put her in a headlock and held a razor blade to her throat minutes after take-off from Munich airport on Tuesday.
Other crew rushed to the assistance of the flight attendant and there was a scuffle, Bild online said. When no one understood the man's demands, he barricaded himself in a toilet with the flight attendant. The pilot turned the plane around and returned to the airport.
All 76 passengers disembarked from the plane, which had been bound for Budapest. Only the flight attendant, pilots and the man stayed on board.
Police persuaded the 28-year-old to surrender. His petition for asylum had been rejected and he was being sent back to Budapest, they said. Three flight attendants suffered injuries, police added.