BOGOTA, Sept 29 (Reuters) - Colombia's government has convened an arbitration court to seek a solution that will end a strike by most of Avianca Holdings SA's local airline pilots that has grounded thousands of travelers, the labor ministry said.
The decision late on Thursday forces the Colombian Association of Civil Aviators, or ACDAC, and Colombian flagship airline Avianca to each appoint one arbitrator and agree on a third or have one appointed.
"This is a procedure through which the labor ministry is delivering a legal and binding instrument to the parties, since it has been determined that air transport is an essential public service," Labor Minister Griselda Restrepo told reporters.
Once installed, the court has 10 working days to resolve the strike but can extend the proceedings for another 10 days.
The airline considers the strike illegal. It began on Sept. 20 and has led Avianca to cancel more than half of its flights on its domestic and international routes.
"We expect our ACDAC pilots and co-pilots to return to work as soon as possible," Avianca Chief Executive Officer Hernan Rincon said in a statement. "Our responsibility to passengers requires us to quickly and completely re-establish routes."
The ACDAC said it is open to dialogue. More than 700 of the 1,300 Avianca pilots voted to strike for salaries and benefits that the company considers excessive.
Avianca has asked that the strike be declared illegal, saying only some ACDAC-affiliated pilots approved it and that transport is an essential public service.
If the courts deem the action illegal, Avianca could fire striking pilots.
Avianca, a member of the Star Alliance and one of the leading airlines in Latin America, carried 29.5 million passengers in 2016. It has more than 21,000 employees and serves 105 destinations in 28 countries in the Americas and Europe. (Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing Helen Murphy; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)