French ATC Strike Inflicts More European Flight Disruption

 - September 16, 2022, 4:15 AM
Eurocontrol released a snapshot of anticipated delays from a strike by French air traffic controllers. (Image: Eurocontrol)

European airlines and passengers faced yet another day of major disruption on Friday due to a strike of French air traffic controllers that forced France’s aviation authority DGAC to impose limitations on the number of flights. The industrial action, called by the country’s largest air traffic controllers’ union SNCTA after talks over wage increases to compensate for the high inflation collapsed, will run from September 16 at 04:00 UTC to 04:00 on September 17.

The union, which also accuses French officials of failing to recruit sufficient controllers, noted that it had already filed a new strike notice for three consecutive days, from September 28 to 30.

The DGAC issued a notam instructing air operators to cancel their commercial flight program by 50 percent on Friday and warned the public via its Twitter account to expect flight cancellations and “significant” delays. Flights that ensure “territorial continuity” are excluded from the reductions, according to the NOTAM. Flights to and from France (including French overseas territories) as well as overflights are subject to the flight cancellation program.

The measure prompted Ryanair to reiterate its long-standing call for the European Union to step in, protect overflights under minimum services laws, and allow Europe’s other air traffic control providers to manage overflights over France while French ATC unions strike. “It is inexcusable that passengers who are not even flying to/from France are disrupted because they overfly French airspace at a time when French laws protect French domestic flights,” noted the low-cost carrier’s operations director Neal McMahon.

All airlines flying to, from, or over France will be impacted by the country’s air controllers’ walkout on Friday, but Ryanair’s operations will be more disrupted than any other airline—it has canceled 420 flights today—because it is Europe’s busiest aircraft operator. The group operated 2,963 daily movements on average, according to Eurocontrol’s latest traffic update for the week of September 8-14. Europe’s second-largest carrier, EasyJet, operated 1,630 daily flights while Air France Group ranked fifth with 1,630 flights.

The Eurocontrol traffic snapshot also shows that the French air navigation service provider DSNA handles more flights movements—9,400 flights in the week of September 8-14—than any other European air navigation service provider, which highlights the vast impact the French ATC strike will have on Europe’s already poor punctuality performance.

While traffic year-to-date (January 1 through September 14) is still 18 percent below 2019 levels, punctuality declined with 28.6 percent of flights arriving more than 15 minutes late, compared with 23 percent in the same period in 2019, and 33.5 percent of flights departing more than 15 minutes late, compared with 28.8 percent in 2019. The poor punctuality is partly due to operational hiccups this summer with airports and airlines across the region struggling to cope with the stronger than anticipated post-Covid surge in travel demand.

To mitigate the compulsory 50 percent reduction of capacity for French overflights, Eurocontrol in its role as Network Manager has developed a mitigation plan and requested neighboring air traffic control centers in the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands to be prepared for extra demand and on load. It also developed and activated alternative routing scenarios, including via Switzerland and the Canaries.

On Thursday, the CEO of Amsterdam Schiphol airport, Dick Benschop, became the latest airport boss to resign following months of chaos at the facility. “A lot of attention, and criticism, has been directed towards the way in which Schiphol is tackling the problems and my responsibility as CEO. On my own initiative, I am giving Schiphol the space to make a new start,” he said in a statement.

Major European airports including London Heathrow have had to scale back on movement capacity as the autumn travel season begins due to ongoing shortages of key workers, such as baggage handlers. Travelers are bracing for further delays and flight cancellations on September 19 due to airspace closures for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.