Ryanair Decries Continuing French ATC Strikes

 - March 20, 2023, 12:23 PM
Ryanair director of operations Neal McMahon (left) and CEO Eddie Wilson urge passengers to sign a petition to allow for French overflights while air traffic controllers in the country stage strikes. (Photo: Ryanair Group)

Growing increasingly frustrated with the multitude of strikes by air traffic controllers in France, Ryanair has begun calling on passengers to sign a petition to pressure the European Commission (EC) to take action to ensure authorities allow overflights of France during the walkouts. French air traffic controllers plan four days of industrial action this week, from Monday until Thursday, as part of nationwide strikes in protest of French president Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. The four days of strikes come in addition to the 13 days of walkouts by French ATC so far this year. 

“While we respect the right to strike, it is completely unacceptable that Europe’s passenger flights that overfly France are repeatedly delayed or canceled by French ATC strikes,” Eddie Wilson, chief executive of Ryanair Group’s Irish ultra-low-cost airline, said during a press conference in Brussels on Monday. “The European Commission has to do something about it,” he stressed, warning that if nothing gets done, the coming summer season might prove more chaotic than summer 2022. “Last summer was the worst in terms of delays we experienced in Europe,” he told AIN. “The ATC system is stretched, flights are fully booked, and airlines will not have spare capacity to deal with continuous disruptions due to strikes by French ATC.” 

France’s DSNA—part of the French civil aviation authority DGAC—manages a large swath of Europe’s air traffic due to its location in the center of Europe and its vast size. The 13 days of French ATC strikes this year forced Ryanair to cancel 300 flights and delay another 6,000.

“More than 1 million passengers faced delays or cancellation as a result of these strikes,“ Wilson said, adding that 80 percent of the passengers did not fly to or from France. The detours to fly around the French airspace created an avoidable 4,000 tonnes of CO2, Ryanair director of operations Neal McMahon noted. He also questioned the reason for the air traffic controller protests of pension reforms given their retirement age is well below the proposed new age of 64. “They strike out of solidarity. But there needs to be a balance between the reason to strike and the impact,” he asserted.

While strikes are a national—not an EU—competence, Ryanair believes the EC needs to intervene in the matter because of its failure to defend the freedom of movement of EU citizens and the EU single market for flights.

Although Wilson acknowledged that a legal challenge remains an option, he said: “that would take too long.” Repeated calls on the European Commission to act have fallen on deaf ears, he admitted. “[So] the best way is through consumers,” he said. “That is why we launched the petition ‘Protect passengers—Keep EU skies open’.” Once a petition draws 1 million signatures, the Commission must consider it.

Other European airlines are open to joining the petition, Wilson said. “We wanted to be ahead on this because we are Europe’s largest airline operating over 2,300 routes,” he remarked. Ryanair Group operated on an average of 2,199 daily flights over the past 30 days, according to Eurocontrol data. Europe’s second-largest low-cost carrier, EasyJet Group, operated 1,266 daily flights.

Ryanair is urging the EC to take measures to ensure that France’s minimum service laws during ATC strikes apply to overflights, and not just to flights to and from the country. The Commission should mandate that French ATC unions engage in binding arbitration before calling strikes, it added. Finally, the EC should introduce measures that would allow other ATCs or Eurocontrol’s Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre (MUAC) to manage French overflights while French controllers stage strikes. MUAC manages the upper airspace over Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and northwest Germany. 

In contrast to France, several EU countries, including Spain, Italy, and Greece, have in place legal provisions that ensure overflights take place when their national air traffic controllers stage industrial action.