Ryanair, Wizz Air, easyJet, and IAG, the owner of British Airways and Iberia, have filed a complaint to the European Union against France, arguing that the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) strike in the country limits freedom of movement. The carriers argue that France, which is prohibiting flights to cross through its airspace while the strikes are going on, is breaking European law through its restrictive practices.

“It’s not just customers leaving or arriving in France who are affected during the strikes of the French air traffic controllers. Passengers on lines crossing France, especially the airspace above Marseille and the Mediterranean are also subject to significant delays and disruption,” says Willie Walsh, Managing Director of IAG. “This affects all airlines but has a significant negative impact on Spain’s tourism and economy.”

Statistics from Eurocontrol, the European agency responsible for overseeing air traffic, show that 16,000 flights were disrupted in the first six months of 2018 due to French ATC strikes. These disruptions have affected roughly 2 million passengers. Further, Eurocontrol reports that at least ⅓ of all flight delays in Europe between January and June of 2018 can be linked to these strikes. The French Senate confirmed that statistic.

“The [French] Senate states also that the right to strike has to be balanced against the obligation to provide public service,” easyJet said.

“The failure of French air traffic control authorities to ensure a continued and adequate service has already caused massive disruption to the travel plans of thousands of passengers across Europe, with airlines left to pick up the pieces,” said József Váradi, Chief Executive of Wizz Air. “Addressing this issue must be a priority for the European authorities to ensure European citizens and businesses are no longer held hostage to national industrial relations issues.”

“When Greece and Italy have ATC strikes, overflights continue as normal. Why won’t France do the same? ATC providers (especially in Germany and the UK) are hiding behind adverse weather and euphemisms such as “capacity restrictions” when the truth is they are not rostering enough air traffic controllers to cater for the number of flights that are scheduled to operate,” Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said.

There have been 423 ATC strike days in the EU since 2004. 70% of these days were in France, according to Airlines for Europe, a lobby group that activates for the interests of European airlines. French ATC strikes in the past six months have tripled over the same period next year, according to the airlines who filed the complaint.

“In the first half of 2018, EU travelers were subjected to an unprecedented 29 ATC strike days—22 of them occurring in France—affecting millions of passengers through delays and cancellations,” said a statement released by Airlines for Europe and the Network for the European Private Sector in Tourism.

“We fully respect the right to strike and have been in constructive dialogue with the EU and the French government to address the issue of air traffic control strikes. Unfortunately, our passengers have felt little progress so far, which is why we felt it is necessary to take this next step – particularly given the sustained industrial action this year which has totaled 29 days to date,” said easyJet CEO Johan Lundgren.

Ryanair started the Airlines for Europe initiative in 2016, and both easyJet and IAG are members. The group, along with Airlines for Europe, started a petition called Keep Europe’s Skies Open, which presses authorities to take steps to prevent ATC strikes from having consequences on airlines and passengers alike.

“The right to strike needs to be balanced against freedom of movement,” said Walsh.

Suggested solutions to this issue include a 72-hour notification period before a strike, protection of overflight rights, and enhanced capabilities to continue control services. Airlines for Europe is calling for investments in technology, human resources, and improved procedures to ensure that Europe’s air traffic control network is capable of handling increased traffic.

“Europe’s ATC providers are reaching the point of meltdown with hundreds of flights being canceled and delayed daily either because of ATC strikes or because Europe’s ATC don’t have enough staff,” O’Leary said. “These disruptions are unacceptable, and we call on Europe’s Governments and the EU Commission to take urgent and decisive action to ensure that ATC providers are fully staffed and that overflights are not affected when national strikes take place, as they repeatedly do in France.”

IAG says that it will face higher fuel costs this year than it expected because its aircraft need to make detours to bypass French airspace. easyJet expects its costs to rise by about 3% in 2018 due to effects of the strikes. Ryanair says that the strikes contributed to the cancellation of 1,100 flights in the month of May.

All parties involved in the complaint have stressed that they do not oppose the right to strike.

Featured image by Rijeka Airport

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