February 22nd, 2010
10:34 PM GMT
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More than four thousand Lufthansa pilots began a four-day strike on Monday, forcing the world’s second largest international airline to cancel 800 flights.

I spent the day at the German flag-carrier’s Frankfurt hub before witnessing the drafting of the agreement that secured a suspension of the strike.

The early morning show producer was pretty clear about what she wanted. “Off the top,” she emailed the team on the ground, “we want passenger chaos.”

Terminal 1 at Frankfurt Airport at 6:30 am on a dank, dark, damp Monday morning in February is probably nobody’s first choice. But it turned out to be the backdrop of the first of two major surprises in the course of the day: as my field producer Naomi McMullan and I stepped out of our taxi into the drizzle, what we saw was anything other than chaos.

Inside the building, people were to be seen, but only in moderate numbers – nothing out of the ordinary. Check-in clerks sat behind their counters, many idle, while Lufthansa officials circulated on the concourse offering help and advice to those few passengers who had shown up in hopes of taking one of the airline’s 1,800 daily flights.

The hushed calm, orderliness and decorum extended even to the ranks of television journalists and photographers deployed to Germany’s number one developing story: they had lined themselves up in a neat row opposite a bank of neglected electronic check-in stations, meekly awaiting news and interviews.

What we were witnessing was the outcome of some assiduous work behind the scenes by Lufthansa. Using email, SMS and even social networking, it had successfully communicated with the vast majority of those customers hoping to use its flights on Monday, getting across the messages about the strike’s impact, booking alternative flights or train journeys and even using direct messages on Twitter to reassure would-be passengers that any lingering concerns would be addressed.

There were exceptions. A 14-month-old boy can be an awkward travelling companion, as Valérie Dardignier was painfully reminded when she stepped off her overnight Lufthansa flight from Miami, expecting just a single short hop to Brussels, her final destination. But that connecting flight had gone the way of about 800 others, and Naomi found her trying to feed and look after her overtired and upset son while swearing she would never fly on Lufthansa again.

And then there was the couple originally booked on a flight to India. Their alternative flight booking would indeed get them there in the end – but take them to Bangkok, Thailand first.

By the middle of the day, things had settled into a pattern. The “passenger chaos” had not materialised, and some Lufthansa flight were leaving as normal. Terminal 1 was a busy place – but then it always is.

Then Lufthansa’s tall and dapper Corporate Communications Chief Klaus Walther appeared with the first real news for hours: the company was seeking an injunction against the pilots’ union on the grounds that its action was causing disproportionate damage and disruption.

Fast forward a few hours to a bland white-walled hearing room in the centre of Frankfurt, the headquarters of the local employment tribunal. Lawyers and representatives from the two sides shouldered their way to their desks past a heaving posse of journalists and photographers hanging on their words.

Right on time, a door opened and the panel filed in, headed by a youthful career judge, Dr Silke Kohlschitter. What happened over the next two hours had a great deal to do with her personality, legal precision and good humour - and her ability to cut through to the core of what divided the two sides and what could bring them together.

Those used to, say, British legal proceedings would have been astonished at the informality of the way Kohlschitter mediated between Lufthansa and the striking pilots’ union.

The detailed background, the arguments and the issues were not easy to follow, and proceedings were adjourned twice to allow the two sides to huddle and refer back to their colleagues back at headquarters. But in the end the presiding judge had cajoled Lufthansa and its pilots’ union into accepting an agreement which she had largely drafted for them in open court.

It was an impressive process: just two-and-a-half hours after the tribunal had convened, it had secured a fortnight’s suspension of the biggest strike in German aviation history. Pay talks will now resume as soon as practical – without preconditions.

It’s been a long day but the two surprises have taught me two lessons. First, the effective use of modern communications helped prevent what could have been an angry gathering of frustrated passengers at the airport. And second, anyone who might have been seduced into some stereotype of German judges as legalistic, inflexible and unimaginative had better think again.

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