Plane talking The Pilot Whisperer

Lufthansa's head of human resources, charged with breaking a series of strikes by the airline's pilots, is beginning to feel the pressure.
Bettina Volkens has had a turbulent year.

Despite the fact she is Lufthansa’s chief negotiator in its ongoing battle with striking pilots, Bettina Volkens is not one for poker faces. In fact, the airline’s head of human resources has a surprisingly friendly demeanor, even when the going gets tough.

And it doesn’t get much tougher than the airline’s current predicament. Its uppity pilots have now walked out ten times this year over proposed changes to their salary and pension schemes, leaving hundreds of thousands of passengers stranded around the globe.

The latest latest set of strikes hit the airline this week, after it became clear at the weekend that discussions with Germany’s highest-paid professional group would not result in an agreement. And that strike, which hit the airline on Monday and Tuesday, was still ongoing when the pilots union announced another strike on long haul flights today.

The petite Ms. Volkens currently has one of the most challenging jobs in the company. Her every move in every round of negotiations is the subject of intense scrutiny, not least by people on her own side of the negotiating table.

It is clear that the petite Ms. Volkens is suffering a fair amount of inner turmoil.

She took over the conflict discussions with the pilots early this year, after her predecessor, Peter Gerber, left to take the helm at Lufthansa Cargo, the airline’s freight subsidiary.

Even then it was clear that the dispute would drag on, as no valid collective salary agreement had been in place for two years. At the end of 2013, Lufthansa also cancelled the collective pension plan agreement which had given pilots the option to take early retirement at 55 and still receive 60 percent of their salary until the official retirement age of 63. The loss of this benefit is one of the pilot's main grievances.

The 51-year-old Ms. Volkens, who has been a board member for human resources and law since 2013, was seen as a confidante of former Lufthansa boss, Christoph Franz. This had led to friction with some colleagues, according to a company insider.s

Some insiders predicted a bleak future for Ms. Volkens.

Mr. Franz left the company in early 2013 to join the Swiss pharmacy firm Roche, and new boss Carsten Spohr came in with plans to introduce major changes. Many believed Ms. Volkens would be sidelined, but she has remained at her role.

There is no one better placed at Lufthansa to bring an end to the drawn out conflict. Ms. Volkens’ charm and wit, as well as her rigor and assertiveness, earned the trust and goodwill of her adversaries at the pilots’ union, VC, as well as the respect of her board member colleagues.

They fully expect her to resovle the conflict. The airline wants to secure its long-term future in the changed competitive airline industry. This involves positioning itself somewhere between budget airlines and the state-subsidized premium competitors in the Persian Gulf.

A new budget airline concept, under the generic name of "Wings," is on the agenda. If that is implemented, many pilots fear it will affect their lucrative collective agreements. The issue is already being discussed as part of the ongoing negotiations.

Ms. Volkens is no pushover. For each of the nine strikes, she has put together a special flight plan to keep as many airplanes as possible in the air. Thanks to her efforts, about 1,450 of 2,800 affected flights were able to operate as normal during this week’s strike.

But this was only damage limitation. Negotiations are still deadlocked, and it is not known when they will start again.

Only one thing seems clear: The industrial dispute will continue to test Lufthansa’s human resources boss into the New Year.

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The author is an editor in Handelsblatt's companies and markets sectionj. To contact the author: [email protected]