* Airline employs 8,000 staff
* Has been loss-making since 2011
* Unions oppose layoffs
* Open Skies agreement with EU set to raise competition
* Expanding into Africa, wants to lease more planes
Tunisia's state airline wants to lay off 1,200 workers to ease financial difficulties which have led to flight delays and the grounding of aircraft due to lack of spare parts, its chief executive told Reuters on Friday.
Tunisair, which has a fleet of 30 aircraft, employs 8,000 staff, part of a bloated public service which the government has failed to trim due to resistance from labour unions.
By comparison Morocco's state-owned Royal Air Maroc, which has more than 50 aircraft, has some 3,300 workers, according to its website.
"The company is suffering from major financial difficulties because of the high number of workers and the wage bill of the company," Elyess Mankabi, the company's chief executive, said in an interview.
"We've proposed to lay off 1,200 workers and we await the government's approval for this program, which will help the company ease its financial burden and get out of its crisis," he said.
"In all parts of the world, each plane is supposed to have about 80 employee but at Tunisair, each plane has 165 workers, which is hitting the company's balance sheets," Mankabi said.
The company has been suffering losses since the ousting of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 sent Tunisia into turmoil, deterring tourists and investors.
It faces increased competition as Tunisia has been negotiating an Open Skies agreement with the European Union.
Tunisair has been expanding to Africa to tap new markets in anticipation of growing competition at home.
Angry passengers have recently vented frustration on social media about delays, which Mankabi blamed on a shortage of aircraft -- the fleet of serviceable planes has shrunk to 24 from 30 as Tunisair lacks funds to carry out maintenance, Mankabi said.
There was no immediate reaction from the government and labour unions which have failed to agree on restructuring of Tunisair or other public sectors which have high numbers of staff.
Some Tunisian lawmakers have demanded a sale of the firm instead.
The Afek Tounes party, which is not part of the ruling coalition, said in a statement the government needed to intervene urgently to rescue Tunisair.
The Open Skies agreement with the European Union will open all airports except Tunisair's main base in the capital to foreign carriers, but after four years Tunis airport will also be included.
"It will not be easy for the company after Open Skies, (which could come into force this year), But we have a reform programme for the company. If implemented, we will be in the right direction," Mankabi said.
He said the restructuring plan would cost about one billion Tunisian dinars ($363mn).
Mankabi expects the company to lease six aircraft to boost its fleet in 2019 as the airline launches two new routes in Africa by the end of this year, to Sudan and Cameroon, bringing the number of African routes to 10.