French air traffic controllers are fond of going on strike. And they rather like doing so at short notice. So guess what happened when the French parliament last week (November 15) passed a bill saying air traffic controllers must give at least 48 hours’ notice before going on strike? Well, they went on strike, for the 62nd time this year.
That’s an astonishing record, amounting to approximately one strike day for every five normal days. In the most comprehensive study available, research commissioned by the US Senate found that between 2005 and 2016, French air traffic controllers (ATC) walked out 249 times. The Greeks and Italians went on strike for 44 days and 34 days respectively during that same period.
And if you think your holiday plans are blissfully unaffected by the grumbling French, think again. It’s hard to put an exact figure on the number of British holidaymakers whose flights have been cancelled, delayed or rescheduled due to French ATC strikes since 2005, but we are certainly looking at a figure in the millions. The disruption comes in many forms.
The first is that your French holiday could be hit. When French ATC go on strike, the French Civil Aviation Authority typically asks airlines to cut between 20 and 25 per cent of their flights to and from a number of French airports. During the latest walkout on November 20, easyJet grounded at least 10 flights, BA cut more than 20 flights and Ryanair said more than 10 were affected.
The French strikes also, inevitably, lead to knock-on delays across the continent. Figures released in August by Eurocontrol, the body that coordinates air traffic across Europe, revealed that French air traffic control walkouts increased the number of delayed flights on the continent by 36 per cent. The strike action this year has largely been centred around the protest against president Emmanuel Macron’s plans to raise the pension age. Not that you give two hoots about that, when staring at a departures board, wondering why your flight from Gatwick to Malaga has a big red “cancelled” next to it.
And therein lies the most frustrating matter for British holidaymakers: when French air traffic controllers go on strike, “overflights” are hit too. This means that many (but not all) flights departing from London to Spain, for example, which rely on a flight route over France, end up being cancelled, delayed, or having to take lengthy detours to reach their destination – something that Ryanair’s chief executive Michael O’Leary described as a “scandal” earlier this year.
Following this week’s walkout, a Ryanair spokesman said: “It is completely unacceptable that there have been 65 days of ATC strikes this year (13 times more than in all of 2022) which have caused the cancellation of thousands of flights at short notice, unfairly disrupting EU passengers’ travel plans.
“France unfairly uses Minimum Service Laws to protect French flights while forcing cancellations on overflights from Germany, Spain, Italy, Ireland, and the UK. We have no problem with French ATC unions exercising their right to strike, but the EU Commission should insist that cancellations due to French ATC strikes are allocated to French flights, not those overflying France en route to another unrelated EU destination,” the Ryanair spokesman added.
A Ryanair petition to “keep EU skies open” received more than 100,000 signatures on change.org, and Eurocontrol said in an October 2023 paper that allowing continuity in overflights during ATC strikes would be beneficial to network traffic.
Air France is to be hit by a potentially major strike on Tuesday (November 28). The strike, announced by six workers’ unions, comes in response to the airline’s proposed withdrawal from Paris Orly. For those flights affected, Air France compensation may be available.
It wouldn’t be fair to blame this year’s flight disruption entirely on French air traffic controllers. On Sunday, Heathrow cancelled 60 flights due to high winds and staff absence. And indeed there have been myriad causes. Wildfires in the Mediterranean hit flights during the summer, the war in Ukraine has led to a squeeze in the available airspace in Europe. Meanwhile pilots and airport staff have staged walkouts in Belgium, Italy, Portugal and Spain. And you may remember that our own air traffic control unit, Nats, experienced an IT meltdown over the August bank holiday.
But this year, and for many years now, French air traffic controllers have been a consistent thorn in the side of British air passengers. And their strikes do not only cause inconvenience. They cost us money. Between 2018 and 2022 (which was, bear in mind, a reduced period for air travel), French strike action cost airspace users €624 million, according to Eurocontrol. The strikes also have an impact on the environment. During that same period, airlines flew an extra 3,343,908 nautical miles due to French ATC strike action, amounting to an extra 66,876 tonnes of Co2 emissions being pumped into the atmosphere.
So will disruption simmer down in 2024? Not exactly. The existing French air traffic control system dates from the 1970s and still relies on paper strips to represent incoming planes (no wonder they’re reluctant to go into work), so the entire system will be overhauled in the first two months of 2024. An estimated 16,500 flights are expected to be cancelled, and overflights will also, inevitably, be hit. In total, as many as 2.5 million passengers flying to Europe could be hit. But, in the long term, this will be a good thing for the consistency of flight services around the continent.
And we have further cause for optimism. The largest ATC union, SNCTA, has called a so-called “Olympic Truce”, promising no more walkouts until after the games on September 8 2024. There is a clearing in the clouds. For a period, maybe, your holidays will only have wildfires, IT meltdowns and war to contend with. Bon voyage.