The war in Ukraine and the subsequent spike in inflation has triggered tensions between workers and companies over salary increases, which in turn has led to a substantial number of strikes in different parts of Europe. One of the sectors that has been impacted is commercial aviation. According to data from Eurocontrol, there were 34 days with industrial action impacting air transport in Europe between 1 March and 9 April 2023. The action has mainly occurred in France but there were also a few in Germany. For the whole of 2022, there were 5 days of industrial action in France.
The 34 days of strikes in 2023 potentially impacted 237,000 flights (flights to, from or across the countries mentioned above, mainly France). By comparison, the airspace closures in Europe resulting from the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010 (15-22 April) led to the disruption of some 100,000 flights.
On average, in the first three months of 2023, 3,300 flights took off or landed in France each day (including 800 domestic flights) and an additional 3,700 passed through French airspace. With an average of 23,000 flights a day in Europe as a whole, this means that 30% of daily European flights were potentially impacted by industrial action in France. As a result of the application of the industrial action, many flights were either delayed or cancelled, affecting millions of passengers.
More than 10 million passengers were affected by the French strikes. On a typical strike day, approximately 64,000 passengers were unable to fly as they intended as a result of cancellations; daily cancellations increased by 37%. When compared to a normal day, on strike days in France, there were on average 485 additional cancellations, of which 25% were overflights.
Arrival punctuality deteriorated from 80% on a normal day to 71% on strike days. For those flights that were not cancelled, flights arrived on average 17 minutes later than scheduled, 6 minutes more delay than on a normal day. For the flights arriving in, or departing from, France, the arrival punctuality dropped from 80% to 61% and the delay increased from 11 to 23 minutes on average. Strikes in France had a severe impact on traffic not only in France but also in other countries, in particular its neighbors.
Almost a third of flights departing France were delayed as a direct result of the strikes. Industrial action in France also has a severe impact on traffic in other countries, in particular its neighbors. Spain had 394 daily departing flights delayed as a direct result of the strikes, followed by the UK (209) and Italy (152). In terms of share of departing flights affected by the strike, Belgium was the most impacted with 20%, followed by Portugal (16%), Spain (15%) and Morocco (15%).
Most of these affected flights were not flying to France but were overflying France en-route to another country. For Spain this was 88% of its affected flights (345 out of 394), whereas for the other States between 66% and 77% of their impacted flights were overflights rather than flights to France.
Compared to a normal day, there were 2.5 times as many cancelled flights in France. In Portugal they almost doubled whereas in Germany, also due to the effect of industrial action at some German airports on 27 March, cancellations increased by 80% on average over the whole period analyzed. For the rest of most affected States, cancellations increased between 23% and 61% compared to a normal day.
1. Environmental and financial impact
In addition to the impact on passengers, strikes can also have a large environmental footprint. Eurocontrol estimates, that between 7 March and 9 April 2023, additional 96,000 km were flown each strike day, with an average additional 386 tons of fuel burnt and more than 1,200 tons of CO2 emissions. The cost to aircraft operators of cancellations between 7 March and 9 April 2023 was 8M€ per day on average. The costs of delays were an additional 6M€ per day on average
As an example, on 12 March, around 40 flights had to extend their path by at least 200 nautical miles (370 km) in order to avoid French airspace (when compared to their flight plans on 5 March, a non-strike day).
2. Impact on aircraft operators
Individual aircraft operators are also impacted by strike action in different ways depending on their routes and specific city pairs. In terms of the number of delayed flights, the most affected by the French strikes was Ryanair with a daily average of 332 flights delayed (i.e. with an ATFM delay attributed to industrial action), followed by Air France (277) and easyJet (256).
Air France had the highest share of flights delayed by the strikes with almost a third, followed by easyJet (19%) and Vueling (17%). The average delay per delayed flight for the airlines below due to the strikes was 22 minutes.
The strikes in France in the first quarter of 2023 impacted up to 30% of flights across the continent, showing the disproportionate impact that disruptions in one country can have on the European Network as a whole. The impact was felt not only on flights arriving in or departing from France but also on flights to and from neighboring countries. The knock-on effect of delays and cancellations (including those related to the strikes in Germany) was also felt far beyond France itself. Millions of passengers were affected.
Although France does have minimum service provisions, preventing the complete closure of its ATC operations, these do not protect overflights. Minimum service regulations across Europe that protect overflights (such as are seen in, for example, Italy and Spain) could protect the public from service disruption.