Air traffic controllers strike over plan to consolidate

Thursday, June 20, 2002

PARIS -- Air traffic controllers went on strike Wednesday over a plan to unify Europe's disjointed skies, canceling 7,700 flights over France and stranding passengers across the continent just as the busy summer travel season was getting under way.

Apart from a full-day walkout in France, air traffic controllers observed less crippling work stoppages in Greece, Portugal, Italy, and Hungary to protest the 15-nation European Union's "single sky" plan.

The continentwide plan is aimed at reducing congestion and delays by bringing all air traffic controllers under centralized supervision. Europe's poorly organized airspace is a patchwork of air traffic control zones managed by dozens of different air traffic control centers using different monitoring systems.

But unions say centralized control will result in job losses, and that pressure to reduce costs could also result in a privatization of their services, thus increasing safety risks.

It was the third time in two years that air traffic controllers in France held a work stoppage over the "single sky" plan, but the first time that other countries joined in the action.

Wait out the strike

"I think everyone's on strike out here," said Colin Smales, a British passenger stranded at Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris. "We've got a booking for tomorrow dinner time, can you believe that? What's that, 36 hours we've got to wait?"

France's Civil Aviation Union said talks were desperately needed between EU officials and pilots, air traffic controllers and unions.

"If we feel that the situation is blocked, we'll be forced to strike again," said union spokesman Patrick Malandin. "And if there has to be a next time, maybe the strike won't be limited to a single day."

Neither the airlines nor the unions that had called the strike were able to estimate how many passengers were affected, although major carriers canceled 7,700 flights either in or out of France or through French airspace.

Air France said passengers could count on no more than 10 percent of its domestic and European flights but that 90 percent of its long-haul flights were to fly as scheduled. Air traffic was not fully paralyzed because a small number of controllers remained on the job.

Many exhausted passengers had little choice but to wait out the strike to get to their destination.

"I've got to wait 32 hours to get back to Birmingham," said John Carroll, who was traveling to the central England city when he got stranded at de Gaulle. "I just came back from Japan at 4 o'clock this morning."

British Airways said it had canceled all but four of its 126 flights in and out of France, affecting about 15,000 passengers. It also canceled 38 flights to Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg.

Heathrow, Britain's busiest airport, was unusually quiet Wednesday.

"I think people have seen it on the news and if their flights have been canceled, they've just not come," said Dal Gill, an airport pharmacy manager.

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