The ver.di union is after a 6.5 per cent increase in pay this year for 2 million federal and municipal government employees. It has rejected a 3.3 per cent increase over two years, saying it wouldn't even keep pace with inflation.
The walkouts are part of a program of so-called warning strikes — short-term walkouts — that have been held in various parts of Germany over the past week to increase pressure ahead of the next round of pay talks scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday.
Ver.di chief Frank Bsirske called on employers to change their offer, threatening wider labour unrest otherwise.
"We stand at a crossroads," the dapd news agency quoted Bsirske as saying.
German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, who is handling the government negotiations in the dispute, criticized ver.di for bringing the strikes to the airports, calling it an "inappropriate response."
"We have made a substantial offer," he told the Rheinische Post newspaper. "It is uncalled-for to mistreat the public with these strikes."
Airline Lufthansa said Tuesday it cancelled more than 400 flights at Frankfurt airport alone, where workers were off the job from early morning to mid-afternoon. Other airports affected include Munich, Duesseldorf, Cologne-Bonn, Stuttgart, Bremen, Hannover, Muenster, and Dortmund.
In Berlin's Tegel and Schoenefeld airports, baggage handlers who are also represented by ver.di but are engaged in a separate wage dispute were also off the job.
"I got to the airport to check in and it says our flight is cancelled," said London's Page Baker, sitting on the ground at Berlin's Tegel airport. "Now I can't get home and I'm not happy — I need to get home."
Outside the airports, bus and streetcar drivers, kindergarten teachers, garbage collectors and other public workers also staged warning strikes in various cities around the country.
Dorothee Thiesing contributed to this report.Suggest a correction