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Major flight disruptions anticipated

PAPEETE, Tahiti (Tahitipresse, March 30, 2008) – The French Civil Aviation Office has announced that a week-old strike requires the start of draconian measures involving jet fuel for arriving international flights and freight loadings for departing flights.

Civil Aviation officials at the Tahiti-Faa'a Airport has requested airlines with scheduled arriving flights to carry enough jet fuel for handling takeoffs with no refueling due to the strike against fuel suppliers in Tahiti, the French High Commission office in Papeete announced in a communiqué sent to the news media Wednesday night.

The communiqué also announced that Civil Aviation would no longer authorize any freight loadings on departing international flights starting Wednesday night. The communiqué implied that both restrictions would continue as long as the strike continued.

A major disruption of international flight traffic in and out of Tahiti was expected starting Friday, the Good Friday public holiday throughout French Polynesia. There are four scheduled arriving flights and four scheduled departing flights.

Weekends are traditionally the busiest times at the Tahiti-Faa'a Airport for arriving and departing international flights. There are eight scheduled arrivals on Saturday and five on Sunday. Easter Monday is also a public holiday in French Polynesia.

Negotiations between the striking union and a management group stopped Wednesday morning when union officials stormed out of a meeting. This is one of several strikes with varying effects across a cross-section of businesses in Tahiti, ranging from a bank to a television station. And there were announcements of additional planned strikes.

For the moment, the most seriously affected as well as threatened sectors are service stations for two out of three oil companies, inter-island boat and plane operations and electricity generating plants.

The effects were being felt not only on the island of Tahiti, but on its sister island of Moorea as well as among the Leeward Islands, with their several tourist destinations. The effects were also being felt as far away as the northernmost Marquesas Islands.

French Polynesia Vice President Edouard Fritch asked employers and union officials to reach an agreement to end the strikes. A communiqué sent Wednesday night from Fritch's office to the news media said "the vice president . . . was closely following the evolution of the current social conflicts, noting the uncompromising positions of the employers responsible for the opening of real negotiations with the labor unions".

However, a management spokesman in the fuel strike talks told a television interviewer Wednesday night that the union was trying to renegotiate in 48 hours what requires several months of negotiations for a contract that has not expired. He said the current negotiations were premature in view of an agreement the union had signed, adding that the oil companies refused to negotiate revisions in the contract with the union while a strike was underway.

A union official, meanwhile, told the same television interviewer that there would be no further negotiations until management was ready to discuss the some 20 points of conflict, which include wages, retirement benefits and job descriptions.

Fritch called for both sides to return to the bargaining table to avoid worsening the consequences for daily life in Tahiti and Her Islands.

As the strike continued, an oil tanker carrying 35,000 tons of fuel has been patiently waiting off the coast of Tahiti since Friday, at a reported loss of $30,000 daily to the tanker's operator.

The worst scenario facing the oil companies was that the tanker would leave without unloading its fuel.

On shore, the fuel storage tanks at Total and Mobil service stations were already empty Wednesday, while those at Shell were running low. Long lines of motor vehicles began forming Wednesday at Shell service stations. Shell reportedly had enough fuel Tuesday in its Fare Ute storage facilities to last some 20 days for Electricité de Tahiti and for 50-100 days for service stations, depending on demand.

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