Airport strike spreads across Europe

 An air traffic controllers strike in France went into its second day, forcing the cancellation of 1,800 flights, officials said.
An air traffic controllers strike in France went into its second day, forcing the cancellation of 1,800 flights, officials said.

PARIS — Air travel disruptions intensified across Europe on Wednesday as a strike led by French air traffic controllers broadened in its second day to include smaller labor actions in other countries.

Unions are protesting a plan by the European Union to accelerate the integration of air traffic management systems across the Continent.

France’s civil aviation authority asked airlines Wednesday afternoon to reduce their flight schedules by as much as 75 percent — more than the 50 percent cancellations it had requested previously. The authority said six unions representing nearly all of the country’s controllers had joined in the work stoppages. That left only minimal staffing at control towers in about a dozen French airports, as well as five navigation centers that help to direct flights over French airspace.


The impact of the French action, which began Tuesday and was expected to conclude by Thursday morning, coincided with various protests elsewhere on the Continent that were called by affiliates of the European Transport Workers’ Federation, which represents around 25,000 air traffic control workers. Workers in 11 countries — including Austria, Britain, Italy and Portugal — conducted brief walkouts and minimum-work actions Wednesday.

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Eurocontrol, the Brussels-based authority that coordinates air traffic in Europe, said there had been no major disruptions at other European airports. But the average travel delay across the 27-member European Union and 12 neighboring countries it monitors had increased to around 25 minutes by Wednesday afternoon from just under 15 minutes Tuesday.

The added delays were largely the result of a request by the French authorities that airlines reroute traffic to avoid the country’s airspace, said Nicholas Wyke, a Eurocontrol spokesman.

Flights that were still operating within France, he added, were facing delays of “several hours.”

A spokeswoman for Air France-KLM, which normally serves 226,000 passengers per day worldwide, said the French authorities’ request to increase the number of flight cancellations at midday had created additional headaches at airport check-ins by late afternoon.


“We did not have enough time to warn all passengers of the situation before they arrived at the airport,” said Ulli Gendrot, an Air France spokeswoman. At Charles de Gaulle Airport north of Paris, she said, “the crowds at ticket sales counters and in the transfer lounges are getting larger.”

Air France said additional cancellations were mainly affecting domestic and European flights. As was the case Tuesday, the airline said it made arrangements to accommodate as many passengers as possible with intercontinental flight reservations, either on its own flights or another carrier. About 30 percent of its flights are to or from cities outside Europe.

Air traffic controllers are protesting the European Union’s plans to accelerate the integration of the Union’s fragmented airspace, meant to improve transportation efficiency and lower the cost of air travel. The unions assert that the EU plan will cost jobs and reduce the level of traffic surveillance.

“It puts safety in the European sky only as a second priority,” said Riccardo Rubini, head of air traffic for the European Transport Workers’ Federation.

Airlines, meanwhile, broadly support the initiative, known as the Single European Sky, arguing that a seamless air traffic network could save $6.5 billion in unnecessary costs each year, along with more than 8 million tons of carbon emissions from inefficient routes.


“That’s a 5 billion euro knock on competitiveness at a time when Europe needs to muster all of the competitiveness it can get,” said Anthony Concil, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, a global airline lobby.

France and other European governments say they, too, back the single sky plan in principle. Indeed, all 27 member states endorsed the 2009 European deal that set a timetable for full air traffic integration by 2020.