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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hunger Strike Threatens Flights

Hundreds of air traffic controllers across the country were on hunger strike Monday, with more threatening to join in Tuesday in a fight for higher salaries.

The strike did not affect flights Monday, but protesters said they were settling in for a lengthy battle.

The government stood firm, saying it would not give in to demands for a 30 percent hike in pay.

Air traffic controllers by federal law are not allowed to go on strike. But if a solution is not reached soon, they will be barred from work over their weakened conditions -- controllers are required to go through a medical examination before every shift.

Forced sick leave could cause havoc not just for domestic flights but also international flights passing over Russia on routes between Europe, Asia and the United States.

Participating in the hunger strike Monday were at least 20 air traffic control centers monitoring the airspace over the southern Rostov-on-Don and Saratov regions, Novosibirsk and Omsk in eastern Siberia and large swathes of the Far East and Far North.

"We are asking for a 30 percent raise, which is a perfectly realistic goal that can be reached by changing the State Corporation of Traffic Controllers Enterprises' ratio of expenditures. It has nothing to do with the budget," Sergei Kovalyov, president of the Federation of Trade Unions of Air Traffic Controllers, was quoted by Interfax as saying Monday.

The State Corporation of Traffic Controllers Enterprises is the state-owned company that oversees the country's airspace.

Labor Minister Alexander Pochinok said the government's resources were not "boundless."

"The Russian government is not prepared to fulfill the air traffic controllers' demand for raising wages," Pochinok told Ekho Moskvy radio.

State Corporation head Boris Kushneruk said the controllers' salaries were increased at the start of the year and there was no money for a 30 percent hike. "We raised salaries by 15.79 percent as of Jan. 1. This was done by takingfunds from other areas of work," Kushneruk said on Channel One.

Union representatives said salaries remain too low to attract new employees and to allow current workers to make ends meet.

Nikolai Plotnikov, a top union official, said 27 percent of the State Corporation's revenues are allocated for the salaries of air traffic controllers while in other countries the share varies from 50 percent to 60 percent. Before the 1998 crisis, controllers were getting 49 percent, he said.

The exact number of striking controllers was unavailable Monday afternoon. At the Rostov-on-Don center, which oversees air traffic in much of southern Russia, one-third of the 600 controllers were on strike, Plotnikov said. There are about 7,000 air traffic controllers in Russia.

"More people keep joining the hunger strike after their shifts," Plotnikov said.

Moscow and a 600-kilometer area around it will not participate in the strike even if it continues to spread. Moscow air traffic controllers are not part of the State Corporation and enjoy much better work conditions than their counterparts elsewhere, Plotnikov said.

"Our job is becoming more and more demanding, but there are no rewards," Andrei Lastochkin, an air controller from Novosibirsk, told NTV television.

His colleague Oleg Trushkov said staff of the Novosibirsk air control center have been living in dormitories for 12 to 15 years with no hope of finding permanent housing.

Some controllers handed in their resignations as they went on hunger strike. They have to work two more weeks by law, and they said they would leave if a solution wasn't found before then.

"This simply means people don't see a future in the job unless the conditions are improved," Plotnikov said.

He said controllers were pushed into starting the hunger strike after attempting for months to negotiate for raises.

"We have been trying to attract attention to our problems for the past three years," he said.

The hunger strike is the second this month. Controllers went on strike early this month but postponed the protest after a few days on a promise from management to find a solution by year-end.

"But by Dec. 22 it became clear that we getting nowhere," Plotnikov said.

The average air controller's salary is 8,000 to 9,000 rubles ($251 to $283) per month, Plotnikov said. In the Black Sea resort of Anapa, however, the salary is less than 5,000 rubles. Even in the expensive west Siberian region of Tyumen, where salaries are about 12,000 rubles, the amount is no match for the high cost of living, he said.

Plotnikov also said that controllers are rapidly aging and it is next to impossible to find new staff at current salaries.

"The average age of air traffic controllers is 45," he said, adding that they are expected to retire by 50.

With no solution in sight Monday, some government officials suggested that military air traffic controllers replace the strikers in the civil sector, Russian media reported.

Union leaders said it would be a dangerous move, since military controllers have less experience and don't speak English -- a must to secure safe passage for foreign airlines flying through Russian airspace.

Foreign airlines contacted Monday said they have not received any warnings of potential interruptions to air traffic.

"We have a flight arriving tomorrow from Tokyo, and it is expected to fly as usual," a Japan Airlines official said.

Another foreign airline official said, however, said that the Transportation Ministry has been working on alternative routes. "And besides, air traffic controllers are probably right," he said on condition of anonymity.

Aeroflot spokesman Lev Koshlyakov said the airline was preparing to reroute flights if necessary.

He said the early December strike led to about 40 extra hours of flight time for Aeroflot jets.

"This whole ordeal is damaging for the industry," he said. "After all, it is the passenger who pays for everything. And if it appears that air travel is unsafe or unreliable, fewer passengers are going to seek our services."

Koshlyakov, however, noted that long-distance and international flights were the least likely to be affected. "But there could be problems for those who want to fly into or out of the places where air traffic controllers are protesting," he said.

Air traffic controllers found at least one high-profile supporter in the government Monday -- State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov. He urged the government to step into the strike and ensure controllers' salaries are raised. "They are people with extremely rare skills. I do not envy passengers who now realize that their plane is being guided by a starving air traffic controller," Seleznyov told Interfax.