TENS of thousands of air passengers are facing disruptive strike action on the eve of St Patrick's weekend and the crunch Six Nations decider.
SIPTU hit Aer Lingus and the country's three main airports with notice of industrial action for Friday, March 14, plunging the travel plans of huge numbers of people into jeopardy.
A four-hour work stoppage will take place up until 9am. The stoppage will affect long-haul flights due to arrive from the US and the Gulf, as tens of thousands of tourists prepare to descend on the country for St Patrick's weekend, which is estimated to be worth €120m to the local economy.
It will also result in a huge number of flights bound for destinations all over the UK, Europe, the US and the Gulf being delayed or even cancelled as a backlog develops because of the action. It could also hit thousands of rugby fans hoping to support Ireland in what is expected to be a Six Nations championship decider in Paris.
The decision to take action just three days before St Patrick's Day was condemned by Aer Lingus, the airports, retailers and the Government.
The head of Retail Excellence Ireland, David Fitzsimons, said SIPTU was "holding the country to ransom" and that the planned action would cripple the domestic economy over a busy tourist weekend.
SIPTU claimed it decided to serve notice because of a "refusal of the companies to engage in meaningful talks" or to present "reasonable or fair proposals" regarding the pensions issue. Union officials said they remained available for further discussions.
A spokesman for Transport Minister Leo Varadkar said that industrial action at the airports or Aer Lingus "will not help a solution to be achieved".
"It will, however, severely inconvenience passengers, including tourists and business travellers," said the spokesman.
Mr Varadkar later described the threatened strike as "premature and unnecessary".
"I think the strike should be called off," he said.
Mr Varadkar indicated the companies and workers alike would have to take part of the financial cost of resolving the issue. "We all know what's going to have to happen here is burden sharing," he said.
A deal was brokered in the Labour Court last year to help address a near-€800m deficit at a defined benefit pension scheme, the Irish Airlines Superannuation Scheme (IASS). The DAA and Aer Lingus agreed to provide €200m between them to establish new defined contribution pension schemes for their respective staff.
But plans by the IASS trustee to address the deficit hit a roadblock. Under fresh proposals from the trustee, retired as well as active IASS members are facing cuts of up to 20pc in their pension entitlements and accrued benefits.