By Axel Bugge
LISBON (Reuters) - Portugal's government appealed on Thursday to pilots at flag carrier TAP to call off a 10-day strike that it says would damage tourism and could ruin the airline, scuppering a privatization process scheduled to start next month.
The timing of the strike, due to begin on Friday, is doubly sensitive, coming at the start of the tourism season and just ahead of a May 15 deadline for bids to buy a majority stake in what is at present a wholly state-owned company.
"I am asking the pilots: think of your country, think of tourism, think of the economy, think of your company," Deputy Prime Minister Paulo Portas said.
"TAP is a very important brand for Portugal. Don't contribute to its destruction, don't carry out a 10-day strike in one month, which would destroy the coffers of any company."
While there have been frequent strikes by public sector workers, mainly in the transport sector, during Portugal's debt crisis, they have rarely exceeded one day at a time.
The government has estimated the strike would cost 70 million euros ($78 million) and affect 300,000 TAP passengers.
The pilots say the government has reneged on a 1999 deal under which they would receive a stake in the airline in the event of privatization. They also want higher pay for longer-serving pilots. The government has refused, citing an agreement with the unions in January regarding the sell-off.
"What is at stake is the systematic breaking of commitments made in the past by the government and by TAP," the union said.
Transport secretary Sergio Monteiro said the government would stick to the privatization process and wait for bids.
"They (the proposals) may be better, worse or there will be none at all, depending on what happens in the next 10 days," he said.
"If the strike has the estimated impact, TAP will not be the same on May 16."
After a strike threat at Christmas, the government guaranteed that future buyers of TAP would be barred from laying off workers en masse as long as the state remained a shareholder.
The government is selling 66 percent in TAP, retaining a 34 percent stake that can be sold in two years.
(Editing by Andrei Khalip and Robin Pomeroy)