* Lufthansa pilots hold three-day strike, ground airline
* Pilots earn on average four times more than regular Germans
* Politicians call strike irresponsible
By Victoria Bryan and Erik Kirschbaum
FRANKFURT/BERLIN, April 3 (Reuters) - Pilots on strike at Lufthansa faced withering criticism across Germany and even from their co-workers for demanding higher pay and early retirement terms even though they rank among the country's best-paid workers.
Political leaders 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 during their three-day walk-out until midnight Friday.
The pilots, whose average annual pay of 181,000 euros is nearly four times the average wage in Germany of 45,523 euros, are seeking a 10 percent pay rise over two years and fighting plans by Lufthansa, one of the largest airlines in the world, to scrap a scheme allowing them to retire at 55 and keep up to 60 percent of their wages.
"This strike is completely irresponsible," said Michael Fuchs, a leader in parliament in Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU).
"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 euros 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 not this time.
"There's a lot of anger across the country about an elite group that can't seem to stuff their pockets full enough," wrote the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper in an editorial entitled "Arrogance of the Pilots".
"Why is 181,000 euros not enough?" asked Germany's best-selling daily Bild. "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."
'ARE YOU LUFTHANSA?'
It's not just the public but also their own co-workers who have been hit by the pilots' strike. Lufthansa said 1,500-1,800 cabin crew have been left stranded by the walkout.
When striking pilots in uniforms 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 are also negotiating pay hikes dating back as far as 2012.
Lufthansa last week proposed a pay rise of 5.2 percent 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 is calling for an increase of 5.2 percent for the first 12 month period until April 2013 and then a 4.6 percent rise for the next 12 months.
A Lufthansa captain at the end of his career can earn as much as 255,000 euros a year, plus 5,000 euros in expenses. A first officer earns 73,000 euros plus expenses. The pilots make up around 12 percent of the staff at Deutsche Lufthansa AG but account for 33 percent 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. (Editing by Hugh Lawson)