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Aer Lingus pilots vote to strike over Belfast move

AER Lingus pilots are to strike for 48 hours next week over plans by the airline for a new hub in Belfast.

Members of the Irish Airline Pilots Association (IALPA) voted last night to strike on Tuesday and Wednesday. This will mean all the airline's flights will be grounded for two days.

The union fears that pilots at the new Belfast hub of the airline will be employed on less favourable terms and conditions than they have in Dublin.

The terms are understood to have different salary scales and working conditions than their current ones.

Under the plans, 480 pilots will strike, a move which could cause widespread disruption to services.

It is the latest twist in a saga which is increasingly putting the spotlight on the Government's handling of a fast-developing controversy.

And it emerged last night that Transport Minister Noel Dempsey has jetted off on holidays in the midst of the crisis.

That undermines claims by Defence Minister Willie O'Dea that the Government is trying to reverse the Aer Lingus decision.

It appeared that the Government was in disarray again as cabinet ministers clashed over the official policy on the Aer Lingus decision.

Mr O'Dea claimed that the Government was making "strenuous efforts to persuade Aer Lingus to change its mind".

This approach was never mentioned by Mr Dempsey.

Before the weekend, Mr Dempsey ruled out the Government using its shareholding to force a reversal of the decision to move the Heathrow slots from Shannon to Belfast.

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The Government has insisted for the past week that Aer Lingus's decision was commercial and therefore it could not force a U-turn as the airline is now a private company.

But directly contradicting his colleagues' view, Mr O'Dea said the damage caused to the mid-west by the Aer Lingus pullout "could not be overstated". Mr Dempsey had suggested that the impact was being exaggerated.

However, the Government is denying that there is any rift between the pair over the Aer Lingus pullout.

After a meeting of the pilots at Dublin airport yesterday evening, IALPA president Captain Evan Cullen said the move by Aer Lingus was a "flagrant breach of its collective agreements" and of promises made by the airline to employees before last year's stock market flotation.

"We are not going to allow Aer Lingus treat its Belfast-based pilots as second-class citizens who can be paid less and treated worse than their colleagues in Dublin," said Capt Cullen.

"Aer Lingus has freely entered into collective agreements that cover all pilots employed by the airline and we just want the company to honour its commitments."

Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary will further add to the controversy when he travels to the mid-west to outline his response to the Aer Lingus decision.

Officials from the Department of Transport and other relevant government departments will be meeting representatives from the mid-west next week.

Mr Dempsey has been in direct contact with management at Cityjet about starting a service from Shannon as an indirect replacement for the Aer Lingus routes.

Cityjet gave him an undertaking to examine the possibility of a service from Shannon to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, providing connections to major international routes.

But Shannon Airport could lose as much as €1m a year if it replaces Aer Lingus's Heathrow services with CityJet routes to London City and Paris.

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