Aer Lingus may suspend pilots in training dispute

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DUBLIN, Oct 8 (Reuters) Aer Lingus said today it would suspend pilots who failed to help the Irish airline recruit and train new staff at its planned new Belfast base, in a further dispute between workers and management.

Aer Lingus said in August it would transfer valuable London Heathrow slots from Shannon to a new Belfast base in Northern Ireland.

The move has triggered strike threats by Aer Lingus pilots who fear staff in Belfast will be employed on lower pay than those in the Republic of Ireland.

In a letter sent today, Chief Executive Dermot Mannion called on relevant staff to assist in the screening, assessment and training of new captains and co-pilots in Belfast, with a tomorrow deadline set for agreement.

''It is important that you understand that if you fail to carry out your full range of duties, for whatever reason, you will be suspended from the payroll with immediate effect,'' Mannion wrote in the letter.

Around 50 to 70 Aer Lingus pilots, out of its fleet of 490 pilots, could face suspension under the new guideline.

Mannion told public broadcaster RTE Radio it had tried to resolve the issue with the Irish Airline Pilots' Association (IALPA), representing the pilots.

He added that pilots had not helped with the recruitment process in Belfast, which was at a critical phase.

''The ball is in the pilots' court,'' Mannion said. ''We gave warning today to IALPA.'' ''We simply need to get on with the job,'' he added.

RTE reported that IALPA would meet on Tuesday to respond. IALPA officials were not available for comment.

Aer Lingus, the target of a failed hostile takeover bid by Ryanair Holdings Plc, has been battling with unions to cut overheads since its privatisation last year.

In a separate dispute, Aer Lingus said last week it will freeze staff pay until unions drop their opposition to a cost-cutting plan designed to stave off the threat posed by budget carriers like Ryanair, its biggest shareholder.

The main SIPTU union said today, after talks with senior management, it had not ruled out industrial action over the decision to freeze pay for employees.

''I am very much hoping to avoid any form of industrial action and have all these issues resolved amicably,'' Mannion said.

In September, Aer Lingus rejected a second request by H Ryanair, Europe's biggest low cost carrier, to hold a vote over the plan to cut the London-Shannon route.

Aer Lingus's share price closed 0.4 percent lower in Dublin at 2.4 euros.

REUTERS TB AS0100

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