A massive battle is taking place in the skies over Europe – and airplane passengers across the continent are feeling its effects.
A plan to simplify the European Union’s patchwork air traffic control system and open up more air traffic duties to private enterprise has sparked strikes and job actions by controllers that began Tuesday in France and were to spread Wednesday to 10 other European nations.
Nearly two decades after the 27-nation EU began eliminating checks along its land borders, its airspace remains a contentious issue.
At the heart of the dispute is the idea of a single European sky – consolidating the continent’s hodgepodge air traffic control systems under a sole authority, turning its many scattered air traffic zones into a few regional blocs, opening up bidding on services like weather forecasting and navigation, and easing what European officials say is a looming capacity crunch.
About 27,000 flights a day now cross European airspace, for a total of over 9 million a year, and most are flying under air traffic management systems that were designed in the 1950s, the European Commission said.
Air traffic control workers, however, don’t necessarily want to adapt to new proposals put forward by the European Commission on Tuesday. They say they fear threats to passenger safety and to their jobs and claim the EU is yielding to industry pressure to cut costs.
“This is a dispute between European technocrats who know nothing about air traffic control and highly trained specialists,” said Olivier Joffrin, a French union leader in Paris.
Air traffic controllers in France began a series of strikes on Tuesday, forcing the country’s main airports to cut their flight timetables in half just as the busy tourist season was beginning. Some 1,800 flights were cancelled.
“When I came here they told me the flight was canceled. So I had to buy another ticket … I couldn’t wait for a flight next Saturday,” said Ahmed Adouani, a passenger stranded at Orly airport in Paris, where he was trying to fly to Algiers.
Air traffic workers elsewhere in Europe were expected to join over the next 24 hours to varying degrees – from working strictly by the book, to picketing and distributing leaflets, according to the European Transport Workers Federation.
The strikes came the same day that EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas called for the speediest possible implementation of the centralization plan, saying the current system’s inefficiencies are costing airlines and customers $6.6 billion annually.
“The time has come for more decisive action. If we leave things as they are, we will be confronted with heavy congestion and chaos in our airspace,” Kallas told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, as he introduced the latest plan.
Due to national borders, many flights over Europe take less-than-ideal routes that the EU has estimated add an average of 26 miles to each flight.
With jet fuel making up an increasing portion of airlines’ costs, and Europe’s air traffic expected to increase by 50 percent over the next two decades, the European Commission said acting quickly was crucial.
Some aviation experts blamed Europe’s zigzag air routes and overlapping controls for the chaos that followed the April 2010 eruption of a volcano in Iceland. More than 100,000 flights were canceled at the time, affecting an estimated 10 million passengers, as EU countries each imposed different restrictions about how airlines should handle the dangerous volcanic ash floating in the atmosphere.