December 4, 2020

French Air Traffic Controllers Set to Strike Over Pan-European Plan

PARIS — Air traffic controllers in France have planned three days of strikes beginning Tuesday, to protest a proposal by the European Commission to accelerate the integration of air traffic management systems across the Continent. In addition, their counterparts in several other European countries were expected to take more limited labor action this week.

France’s civil aviation authority made contingency plans over the weekend, asking airlines serving the country’s airports in Paris, Lyon, Nice, Marseille, Toulouse and Bordeaux to reduce their flight schedules by 50 percent from Tuesday morning until late Thursday to ease the burden on those airports, which were expected to face significant disruption.

Unions in more than a half dozen other countries, including Belgium, Hungary, Italy and Portugal, were likely to join in work-to-rule and other more symbolic actions on Wednesday, said Koen Reynaerts, a spokesman for the European Transport Workers’ Federation in Brussels, which represents more than 25,000 workers involved in managing air traffic across the region. Those actions were likely to provoke more limited delays, he said.

The moves are meant to coincide with a speech planned for Tuesday by the European Union’s transportation commissioner, Siim Kallas, in which he was expected to formally announce planned changes to European legislation to speed the transfer of responsibility for certain air traffic management functions to a central body in Brussels and away from the European Union’s 27 member states.

The proposals would also set stricter rules for compliance with a series of annual performance-improvement goals aimed at lowering air traffic management fees, reducing congestion in European skies and easing the burden on the environment.

Air France-KLM, which flew more than 226,000 passengers a day in May, said that it expected significant disruptions and was advising passengers with reservations Tuesday for a flight in France or on a European flight departing or arriving at a French airport to postpone their travel plans if possible. However, the airline said it was making arrangements to accommodate all passengers with intercontinental flight reservations Tuesday, either on its own flights or with another airline. Roughly 30 percent of the company’s flights are to or from cities outside Europe.

An Air France spokesman said schedule information for Wednesday and Thursday would not be available until Tuesday evening.

Ryanair, Europe’s largest budget airline by number of passengers, said on Monday that it planned to cancel 102 flights to and from French airports on Tuesday and warned that other flights passing through French airspace could face delays or disruptions. Also announcing plans to reduce flights serving France were easyJet and Deutsche Lufthansa.

For more than a decade, the European Union has sought to unify a patchwork of national air traffic control systems — part of a master plan known as the Single European Sky. The aim is to streamline a system that officials say adds about 5 billion euros ($6.6 billion) in unnecessary costs each year, not to mention millions of tons of wasted fuel and added carbon emissions. Legislation passed in 2009 envisioned full alignment of operating procedures, technologies and fee structures by 2020.

As a first step, the law mandated that European Union member states merge their various national airspaces into nine “functional airspace blocs” by the end of 2012. The European Commission, however, argues that the blocs exist today largely on paper and that none of them are fully operational almost six months after the deadline.

In remarks prepared for Tuesday in Strasbourg, Mr. Kallas compared the Single European Sky to a desert mirage. “Each time you get close,” he said, “it seems to move farther away.”

Mr. Kallas’s proposed changes would confer more power on Eurocontrol, an agency in Brussels that is already responsible for coordinating the flow of air traffic across the European Union and an additional 12 nearby countries.

They also include a proposal to break up state-owned monopolies that are responsible for air navigation, meteorology, surveillance and other services in many member states. Such services would be separated from national regulatory and oversight tasks and opened to competition from private companies.

The European transport workers’ union has criticized the commission’s approach to air traffic reform as “dogmatic.” François Ballestero, political secretary for the union’s civil aviation sector, said in a statement that while its members supported the ultimate goal of a unified European airspace, they would not accept a performance program “dominated by cost reduction” that jeopardizes existing jobs or affects existing collective agreements.

The union also rejected the “mandatory unbundling” of support services like weather forecasts and flight routing information, he said.

Brussels claims that such services are among the biggest cost drivers in managing European air traffic.

“We need to boost the competitiveness of the European aviation sector and create more jobs in the airlines and at airports,” Mr. Kallas said.

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