AIR travellers face the prospect of serious disruption in coming months as unions at Aer Lingus and the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) prepare to ballot members on potential industrial action over an on-going pension issue.
Unions including SIPTU that represent about 16,000 current and former staff at the two firms, and the now defunct SR Technics Dublin unit, yesterday wrote to Aer Lingus and the DAA warning that industrial action was now on the cards.
The unions and the companies have been holding talks in recent months at the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) in an effort to resolve a massive €700m pension deficit at the Irish Airlines Superannuation Scheme, which serves former and current staff.
Unless the hole is plugged, the trustee of the scheme may have to force through changes that could reduce future entitlements of active members.
The trustee has already warned that the current rates of employer and employee contributions to the scheme aren't enough to fund benefits.
Securing a solution is vital if the Government is to be able to proceed with the sale of its 25.1pc stake in Aer Lingus, which it hopes to sell by next year.
But despite engaging in the LRC talks, both Aer Lingus and the DAA have insisted that they have no legal obligation to inject any more money into the troubled pension scheme.
Aer Lingus has warned that any attempt to force it to do so could result in expensive and lengthy legal action. However, it has also warned its shareholders that if its position was tested in court and it lost the case that the airline could face serious financial consequences.
SIPTU's aviation sector organiser Teresa Hannick told the Irish Independent yesterday that Aer Lingus and the DAA had been told that if the trustee was ultimately forced by inaction on the part of the companies to reduce pension benefits that industrial action would be considered.
No date for the potential action has been given, but even if it was to be initiated it would likely be in the autumn at the earliest.
She said that unions didn't ultimately want to cripple airports or airlines or do damage to the travelling public.
She claimed that while Aer Lingus and the DAA might argue that they had no legal obligation to put more money into the scheme, they had a moral obligation to do so.
She said the precise wording of the ballot to be put to union members would probably be finalised by next week and the ballot probably undertaken within a month.
A DAA spokesman said yesterday: "All parties are addressing the issue positively and the DAA will continue to work with all parties to find a solution."
He added that any final decision for the scheme would be a matter for its trustees.
An Aer Lingus spokesman said "good progress" had been made at the talks and that the airline "remains committed to identifying an appropriate solution".
He said the company was looking forward to re-engaging in discussions at the LRC.