Cabin crew strike halts 20 per cent of Air France's flights during peak travel period [AFP]

Air France has cancelled an estimated 20 per cent of its flights and warned of wider disruption as a five-day strike by flight attendants went into effect.

About 200 out of 1,000 scheduled flights have been grounded, a company spokeswoman told the AFP news agency on Saturday.

Two unions representing flight attendants called the walkout to protest against plans to reduce the number of crew members on each flight.

In a statement posted on its website on Saturday, the airline said among the cancelled routes were 10 long-haul flights to destinations such as New York, Tokyo, Montreal and Abu Dhabi, as well as cities in West Africa.

The strike, which officially began on Saturday, comes during a peak holiday period.

Tuesday is a public holiday in France and many people take Monday off to extend the weekend. The strike also falls during France's mid-term school holidays.

Thierry Mariani, the transport minister, denounced the strikers, saying they were only hurting themselves by disrupting air traffic in a busy period.

"Management has been very clear. There is no threat of job cuts," Miriani told LCI television.

"If the company has problems, it's not a five-day strike at a big exodus time that will improve its image and competitiveness."

Employee grievances

Several unions urged cabin staff to strike until the end of Wednesday, raising the prospect of serious disruption
during the busy travel period.

The unions have reportedly been unhappy with the reshuffling of flight staffing and claim the carrier is adopting the policies of low-cost airlines. One of their grievances is a plan to reduce staffing on long-haul trips.

Michel Emeyriat, Air France's executive president of ground operations, said the unions' grievances were pure "fantasy" and accused them of irresponsibly insinuating that the airline was running flights with fewer cabin staff than required under safety regulations.

"This strike has no reason to exist," he said on BFM TV.

Emeyriat said that the airline was delivering on 80 per cent of its service and added there had been few last-minute flight cancellations.

Conflicting claims

Air France issued a statement last Thursday in which it said it could not understand union demands and was, in fact, considering recruiting rather than laying off staff.

Air France-KLM, Europe's largest airline by revenue, was formed by the 2004 merger of Air France and Dutch carrier KLM. The flight attendant strike concerns only the French side of the operation.

Another major world airline, Australia's Qantas Airways, grounded its entire fleet on Saturday in a bitter labour dispute.

Source: Agencies