European Airlines Move to Ease Effects of ATC Strikes

 - June 25, 2018, 11:00 AM

International Airlines Group and Ryanair are preparing a legal complaint to the European Commission over what they call an “alarming” increase in air traffic control strikes. France registered a 300 percent increase in ATC strikes compared with last year, not including the work stoppages called by controllers in Marseille for June 23 through June 25.

The airlines plan to file their legal complaint against the French government, arguing an infringement of EU law by not adequately protecting flights over France. IAG and Ryanair claim France fails to ensure one of the four fundamental freedoms of the European Union—the free movement of people traveling, for instance, from the UK or Ireland to Spain. “In the Brexit debate, the EU repeatedly insists nothing stands in the way of the four freedoms,” IAG CEO Willie Walsh noted while describing the ATC strikes as the “biggest” challenge for the airline industry.

“I’m no fan of litigation but enough is enough. Something has to be done,” Walsh told AIN on the sidelines of a briefing of Brussels-based airline lobby group Airlines for Europe (A4E), urging national governments and the commission to take “urgent and decisive” action to ensure full staffing of ANSPs and continuation of overflights when national strikes take place. IAG and Ryanair will each lodge an individual complaint and a collective one. A4E has not joined, “at least not for now,” managing director Thomas Reynaert told AIN. “We first need to discuss it on board level and need unanimity,” he said. It appears unlikely that Air France will endorse the action and lodge a legal complaint against its own government and shareholder. “We are prepared to take action; others may not but we are not waiting,” Walsh said.

The French controllers’ strikes have heavily affected IAG subsidiary Vueling, particularly those by the Marseille FIR, which controls flights over most of the Mediterranean airspace. Up to 50 percent of flights to and from Barcelona, where the LCC maintains its main base, have felt the effects, Walsh said.

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary warned that not only ATC strikes cause flight cancellations, but also ATC staff shortages. “Europe’s ATC providers are approaching the point of meltdown,” he asserted.

The airlines’ warning follows a report by Eurocontrol projecting the total minutes of delay for 2018 will rise 53 percent from 2017 to 14.3 million as result of strikes, capacity/staffing shortages, and weather. In the first five months of 2018 traffic increased by 3.4 percent year-over-year, but en route air traffic flow management delays have risen “dramatically,” from 0.46 minutes per flight to 1.05 minutes per flight. Almost 30 percent of delay resulted from disruptive events such as strikes, 27 percent to weather, and 55 percent to staffing/capacity issues, notably in Germany, France, and the Low Countries. “Europe is already struggling to cope with the levels of traffic this year,” Eurocontrol director general Eamonn Brennan conceded.