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FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Lufthansa (LHAG.DE) canceled almost half of its lucrative long-haul flights scheduled for Saturday as pilots planned a fourth straight day of walkouts in a protracted row over early retirement benefits and cost cuts.
Lufthansa wants to cut spending to levels nearer those of its rivals. It is squeezed by budget carriers Ryanair (RYA.I) and easyJet (EZJ.L) on European routes and by airlines such as Turkish (THYAO.IS) and Emirates [EMIRA.UL] on long-haul flights.
Strikes cost it more than 200 million euros ($214 million) in lost operating profit last year, and losses are mounting again as pilots prepare for their 15th walkout since last April.
But Germany's largest airline said in a letter to customers published on Friday it would not agree to any deal that would "threaten its ability to survive".
Lufthansa canceled 74 of a total 160 long-haul connections scheduled for Saturday, affecting about 20,000 passengers. It also said it was scrapping almost 60 percent of cargo flights.
On Friday, it had canceled 700 short and medium-distance flights, about half the scheduled services at its flagship carrier. It scrapped another 90 flights because of a separate strike by air traffic controllers in Italy.
Travelers also faced further disruption due to a walkout by Acciona (ANA.MC) airport service workers in Frankfurt, the heart of Germany's financial industry.
Strikes in Germany are relatively rare, with employers and larger unions usually able to resolve their differences at the negotiating table.
The airline's dispute with pilots involves early retirement benefits that the VC pilots' union wants to keep but which Lufthansa wants to change for new hires.
The pilots also want Lufthansa to enter mediation on other outstanding issues, such as pay and bringing costs down on flights to tourist destinations.
Lufthansa has rejected the demand.
After VC's call for a fourth straight day of strikes, Lufthansa said the pilots "are moving further and further away from a solution, which must come at the negotiating table".
"Many of you are concerned that the strikes will continue in the next days," Lufthansa said in the letter. "Unfortunately we cannot rule this out."
The airline is also due to start separate wage talks on Monday with services union Verdi, which represents about 33,000 Lufthansa workers on the ground, at IT unit Lufthansa Systems, catering unit LSG, Lufthansa Technik and Lufthansa Cargo.
($1 = 0.9360 euros)
Reporting by Maria Sheahan. Additional reporting by Andreas Cremer.; editing by David Clarke, Keith Weir and David Evans