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Unions approve Sabena restructuring

Christoph Mueller, chairman of Sabena

(Keystone)

Belgian airline Sabena persuaded unions to accept its survival plan after weeks of negotiations, and after the airline said it would go bust before the end of the year if cutbacks did not go ahead.

Sabena is 49.5 per cent controlled by the Swissair Group with the Belgian government holding the majority stake.

The Belgian airline's original plan came out of the talks relatively intact. It envisions the sale of assets, the cancellation of several European and intercontinental routes, a reduction in its fleet, and the cutting of about 1,400 jobs.

Sabena has more than $2.28 billion (SFr3.67 billion) in debt.

The struggling airline also managed to get the union to hold an employee referendum on the plan, aimed at returning it to profitability by 2005, according to a government minister.

"Every party has agreed to present to the workers a business plan, including a social plan," Labour Minister Laurette Onkelinx said as Sabena management and unions completed two days of talks behind closed doors.

"I'm right now more afraid of bankruptcy of Sabena than social actions," said Sabena chief executive Christoph Mueller.

The airline said the referendum would be held before October 3, when Sabena's shareholders are to meet to release the first part of a planned €430 million (SFr635 million) capital injection into the airline.

Sabena has only one posted a significant profit in more than 40 years and ran the risk of becoming Europe's first flagship airline to go out of business.

The agreement between management and unions came after two days of negotiations with the help of a government appointed mediator, after talks broke down on Sunday.

In the final hours of negotiation, management agreed to union demands to increase the number of employees benefiting from early retirement, bringing down the number of forced redundancies to below 500.

The agreement also comes after Swissair announced this week a restructuring plan for its own survival.

swissinfo with agencies


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