Striking Lufthansa pilots have faced criticism across Germany and from their co-workers for demanding higher pay and early retirement terms while ranking among the nation’s best paid workers.

Politicians joined newspaper editorials and TV commentators in lambasting the 5,400 pilots who have all but shut down Germany’s largest airline and disrupted 425,000 passengers in a three-day walk-out till midnight Friday.

The pilots, whose average annual pay of €181,000 is nearly four times the average wage in Germany, are seeking a 10% pay rise over two years, and are fighting plans by Lufthansa, one of the largest airlines in the world, to scrap a scheme letting them retire at 55, on a maximum of 60% of their wages.

“This strike is completely irresponsible,” said Michael Fuchs, of the Christian Democrats. “It’s like they’re taking half a million passengers hostage. I’ve got very little understanding for people going on strike who earn as much as the chancellor.”

Anton Boerner, president of Germany’s BGA foreign trade association, added: “It’s appalling that people earning more than €200,000 a year are taking passengers and the German economy hostage to push their demands for early retirement.”

Strikes in Germany are relatively rare, and when workers do walk off the job, public support is usually high.

But a Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper editorial said: “There’s a lot of anger across the country about an elite group that can’t seem to stuff their pockets full enough.”

“Why is 181,000 euros not enough?” asked Bild, Germany’s best-selling daily. “Have the pilots completely lost touch?”

The pilots recognise the anger but say the dispute is not about pay but safety.

“Being a pilot is a demanding job, and it affects everyone differently,” Markus Wahl, board member at the Vereinigung Cockpit (VC) pilots’ union, told Reuters. “Some people feel they can do the job until 65. Others don’t feel that way, and we want them to have the option to retire early without missing out on social security benefits.”

Lufthansa said 1,500-1,800 cabin crew had been stranded by the walkout.

When striking pilots marched on the Lufthansa main building in Frankfurt on Wednesday, other staff members appeared at the windows to watch. One carried a sign asking “We are Lufthansa. Are you?” in a sign of divisions at the airline.

One consultant who has worked for Lufthansa says other staff at the airline, some of whom have borne the brunt of cost-cutting efforts, are dismayed over the strike. “There’s a definite split at Lufthansa,” he said.

Lufthansa, which flies to 235 destinations in 78 countries, and the VC union – some of whose members, left, protested on Wednesday at Frankfurt airport – is also negotiating pay hikes back to 2012.

Lufthansa last week proposed a pay rise of 5.2% for the period from May 2012 to Dec 2015, although the pay rise would come in two stages and includes a pay freeze for the first six months of the period.

The union wants a raise of 5.2% for the first 12 months till April 2013, then a 4.6% rise for the next 12 months.

A Lufthansa captain at the end of his career can earn €255,000 a year, plus €5,000 in expenses. A first officer earns €73,000 plus expenses. The pilots make up about 12% of the staff at Deutsche Lufthansa AG but account for 33% of staff costs, Lufthansa says.

Lufthansa has already agreed pay deals with ground staff and cabin crew, which included job cuts and pay freezes for ground staff and demands for cabin crew to increase productivity.

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Photo Credit: A passenger walks past a ticket counter of German air carrier Lufthansa at Berlin Tegel airport. Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters