Air traffic control strikes could disrupt flights in Europe this summer

Union at Eurocontrol network manager operations centre in Brussels warns of industrial action

Air traffic control managers in mainland Europe are planning to strike this summer, potentially exacerbating disruption to holiday flights should French strikes continue.

One of the unions at the Eurocontrol network manager operations centre, the Union Syndicale Bruxelles (USB), has given formal warning of strikes in the next six months but has yet to set any firm dates.

Eurocontrol and industry experts have played down the prospect of widespread disruption from the threatened strike, after reports that one in three flights could be at risk, but the news will add to airlines’ concern that air traffic control could prove a big headache this summer.

Eurocontrol, which manages and streamlines air traffic around the continent, said it was talking with all the trade unions and was “hopeful of a positive outcome”.

A spokesperson said: “As no notice of specific industrial action has been received, it is premature to speculate on any potential impact.”

Industry analysts said that should the USB strikes be called, and eventually go ahead, the impact of strikes at the network managers centre in Brussels – rather than Eurocontrol’s air traffic control centre at Maastricht – would be manageable.

Andrew Charlton, a Geneva-based analyst, said a strike would “be annoying, not fundamental”.

He said that while the Brussels HQ played a very important role in managing flows and helping coordinate traffic around other strikes or capacity bottlenecks, it would not close airspace: “If they are on strike, the controllers and airlines would have to work more things out for themselves but it would not mean no service.”

A well-placed source said the potential impacts were “overblown”, while a deal was likely to be done.

Nonetheless, there is still concern from airlines about the impact of strikes by air traffic controllers around Europe. Eurocontrol has warned of pressure on airspace capacity this summer and urged more recruitment of controllers.

Air traffic control is now viewed, after last summer’s airport labour shortages, as the most likely source of disruption.

Yesterday, the Gatwick chief executive, Stewart Wingate, said such strikes could be the airport’s biggest headache this summer, with strikes in France – often at short notice – causing knock-on problems for operations in London.

Wingate said: “The regions that you want to get to this time of year, it’s predominantly. Mediterranean. The most efficient way of doing that is to fly through France. So if we start to see the disruption across France, with industrial action … you’re likely to see slippages in schedules throughout the day.”

Ryanair said it cancelled more than 900 flights across Europe last month – about 1% of its total operation – due to disruption from air traffic control strikes in France, with controllers taking 60 days of action so far this year.

The International Air Transport Association, the global airlines body, has called on the EU to press for changes to allow flights over France during strikes rather than allowing national disputes to affect other international travel.


Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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