Airlines call for EU-wide air traffic control to stop French strike disruption

Luton based EasyJet, Ryanair and IAG will push EU to let controllers from neighbouring countries manage French skies during strikes

Powered by article titled “Airlines call for EU-wide air traffic control to stop French strike disruption” was written by Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent, for The Guardian on Friday 3rd June 2016 15.28 UTC

Airlines that have been campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU are to join forces after the referendum to demand strike-busting European control of French airspace.

Ryanair and easyJet, alongside British Airways’ owner IAG, Lufthansa and others, will press for air traffic controllers from neighbouring countries such as Germany to manage French skies during strikes, which have led to the cancellation of thousands of flights this year and could trigger further disruption this summer.

The chief executives Carolyn McCall of easyJet, Willie Walsh of IAG and Michael O’Leary of Ryanair will share a platform in Brussels this month to push the EU to speed ahead with plans to merge airspace, under the banner of Airlines for Europe, an alliance of major carriers that account for more than half of all air passenger journeys in Europe.

Strike action by French air traffic controllers led to more than 100 flights across Europe being cancelled on Thursday. A strike planned for this weekend in France has been called off by four of the five unions involved, and the French transport ministry said it was confident no action would go ahead.

A further strike scheduled for 14 June may still take place. Ryanair, which cancelled 75 flights this week before what it said would be the 50th strike by French controllers since 2009, has launched a petition calling on the EU to act.

The Irish airline said more than 200,000 people had so far signed, calling for measures that also include a ban on strikes by the French controllers. Similar action in Greece and Italy has normally affected only domestic flights and caused less disruption to airlines and tourist businesses elsewhere.

UK passengers have been among the hardest hit by French strikes, with flights that could operate forced to detour wide into the Atlantic or into central Europe to reach destinations south of France, often queuing in busy airspace.

A spokesman for Airlines for Europe said: “It is the right of anyone to go on strike but it cannot be allowed to affect everyone in Europe.”

The group has warned that Europe is “hurtling towards a summer of disruption and frustration for customers”, and said that strikes in Greece, Italy and Belgium as well as France in the past three months had caused member airlines to cancel more than 2,500 flights, as well as long delays for many that went ahead.

The spokesman said airlines were in talks with the European commission and member states to rapidly advance the planned Single European Sky initiative, which would coordinate air traffic control across the continent.

EasyJet chief Carolyn McCall with UK PM David Cameron at the airline’s Luton airport headquarters last month.
EasyJet chief Carolyn McCall with UK PM David Cameron at the airline’s Luton airport headquarters last month. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

But the airlines hope that smaller steps could be taken before full integration, raising the prospect of German controllers at the main base in Langen, near Frankfurt, looking after France’s skies during strikes.

Speaking at the global airlines summit in Dublin on Thursday, the International Air Transport Association (Iata) vice-president for Europe, Rafael Schvartzman, described the strikes as one of the “biggest challenges we see in Europe”.

He said: “It’s unacceptable that we have these constant disputes affecting the industry and all of us as passengers. Air traffic controllers are actually highly compensated professionals in a dynamic industry. They should be embracing reforms that are critical to delivering the safety, capacity, cost and environmental improvements that European air travellers deserve.”

The ongoing air traffic disputes in France have partly been fuelled by moves to implement the Single European Sky, a programme airlines say would make flights more efficient and have significant economic benefits, but which has been seen as a threat to livelihoods and autonomy in France – a threat likely to be underlined by the major carriers’ latest move.

Schvartzman added Iata’s support: “It’s time for governments to ensure measures are in place to keep airspace open, including looking to their neighbours within the European Union to help run air navigation services when one country’s controllers have stopped services.”

Schvartsman said the technology would already permit neighbouring controllers to navigate flights over French airspace, but politics – and traditional national sovereignty – was the stumbling block.

“Technically you can do it. It is not for us to negotiate. It is for the governments to agree. It is something that can be done today by governments.”

Walsh, the IAG chief executive, said: “It’s an initiative that’s been too long in the discussion. We believe that there are technological solutions that exist that could be put in place and we’re calling on the commission to examine them. It’s in the interests of Europe and consumers in Europe to ensure they can continue to travel during disruption to specific air traffic control providers.”

The planned declaration and joint event in Brussels will come the week after Britain’s referendum on 23 June. Two of the key players, easyJet and Ryanair, have been campaigning for Britain to remain in Europe, including hosting events with the prime minister and chancellor warning that travel costs would rise and airline investment would be at risk in the event of Brexit.

However, the director general of Iata said a decision to leave the EU would probably have no impact on its aviation industry. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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