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Varadkar expects Aer Lingus to call off St Patrick's strike

TRANSPORT Minister Leo Varadkar has said he expects the threatened St Patrick's weekend strike by Aer Lingus workers to be called off.

However, contingency plans in the event of strike action on March 14 by workers at the airline and the Dublin and Shannon Airport Authorities are already being drawn up.

The strike action would cause widespread chaos for thousands of air passengers on the St Patrick's weekend.

SIPTU warned that its workers would down tools between 5am and 9am at Dublin, Shannon and Cork.

But Mr Varadkar has reiterated his call for SIPTU to abandon its plans to strike, and confirmed that an expert panel will investigate how to resolve the pensions row.

"It's very hard to get a solution around a table when you have 20 or 30 different groups involved," he said this morning.

"If SIPTU want to have a strike and want to prove they can close the airport, there is nothing we can do to stop them if they are hell-bent on a strike.

"But I don't think they are. I think what they genuinely want is security for their members. Their members want to know what their pensions are going to be.

"If SIPTU is being genuine and if it is really looking after members' interests, it will call off this strike and engage with this process involving experts. I expect them to after their pensions committee meet. I expect them to call off this strike."

Nevertheless, the Government is preparing for possible strike action. "We will do our best to manage if it does happen and reschedule flights and regional airports to take flights if that is possible. It is not the type of thing we tend to see happen in Ireland," Mr Varadkar said.

He said that the issues surrounding the pension fund are "complicated", adding that the expert group may need several months before any resolution is found.

Meanwhile, SIPTU last night said it will consult members before making an official response to the announcement of the expert panel.

The union's negotiating committees, which include Aer Lingus and airport workers, will meet today, a spokesman said.

A deal was brokered in the Labour Court last year to help address a near €800m deficit in 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 staff.

But plans by the IASS trustee to address the deficit hit an obstacle. Under new 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.