Over the course of this year, French air traffic control (ATC) employees have repeatedly organised strikes, leading to thousands of delays and cancellations, the effect of which spilled over to the entire continent. According to Airlines for Europe (A4E), 2023 saw France accounting for the majority of ATC strike days in the EU, with 67 in total. This resulted in over 4,000 flights cancelled, 24,000 flights delayed and impacted over 11 million passengers.
Repeated calls have been made for the French government, on one side, and the European Commission, on the other, to intervene and take action to mitigate the impact of the strikes, if not domestically, at least for the protection of overflights – flights that do not depart from or land in France, but simply pass over the country, which are still affected by the walkouts.
Millions of passengers have had their travel plans thrown into chaos this year thanks to numerous ATC strikes.Ourania Georgoutsakou, Managing Director A4E
In November, the government passed a new law requiring individual people “whose absence is likely to directly affect the performance of flights” to declare whether or not they will be participating in a strike at least 48 hours before the action takes place. While unions already had to announce a strike at least 5 days in advance, there was no requirement for each employee to indicate participation in the action or not, making it impossible to predict the real impact the strike would have and impeding appropriate preparation for the minimal disruption of passengers.
“It is a balanced text which aims to better organize service on strike days by respecting the right to strike and giving guarantees to passengers (traffic forecast) and controllers (advance notice for requisitions)”, Senator Vincent Capo-Canellas, who proposed the law, said in November. “This text makes it possible to avoid the disorganization of air transport and flight cancellations without many strikers. Traffic will be proportional to the number of strikers, which guarantees social dialogue based on the mobilization or not of employees.”
While the law is a welcome improvement, “more needs to be done to address the chronic disruption to passengers caused by ATC strikes across Europe”, A4E said in a statement. A4E continues to call for further measures to be implemented, including mandatory arbitration and protection of overflights, without affecting local traffic, to further reduce the impact of ATC strikes on European connectivity.
“France’s new law is a welcome development but it is not a complete solution”, said Ourania Georgoutsakou, Managing Director of A4E. “A4E has consistently stated that more can and must be done to deal with the disruption caused by ATC strikes. The European Commission and Member States should work together to make 2024 the year where they finally deliver to ensure smoother skies for European travellers.”
Besides the collective calls from A4E, on 20 March, Ryanair launched a petition calling on the Commission to force France to protect overflights during the ATC strikes. The petition asks for EU overflights to be included in the French minimum service laws; for Europe’s other ATCs, overseen by Eurocontrol, to manage flights over France during French ATC strikes; and for a mandate that French ATC unions engage in arbitration instead of strikes.
In only 5 weeks from launching, the petition already had over 600,000 signatures and, at more than 1.5 million, O’Leary himself came to Brussels in September to submit the ECI, where he received a very warm welcome in front of the Commission.
Ryanair started the petition as a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), a mechanism established in 2007 by the Treaty of Lisbon to allow citizens to be directly involved in the development of EU policies. A petition can be started by anyone and if it gets 1 million signatures from citizens of at least 7 different Member States, the Commission is obliged to seriously consider the proposition, but not to accept its demands.