PARIS -- 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.
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,” stranded passenger Ahmed Adouani said 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 5 billion euros ($6.6 billion) annually.