European airlines have warned that air traffic controller strikes in France will cause further travel disruption for passengers this year.
French air traffic controllers have joined a series of strikes called by unions this month against President Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular pension reforms.
The disruption has rippled across Europe because air traffic controllers are responsible for planes flying over their airspace, as well as those landing and taking off from French airports.
EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren said on Wednesday that the airline was “very badly hit” because UK flights often had to cross French airspace to reach other parts of Europe.
“It is something we have to plan for, and we are doing our best to try to mitigate it but, of course, it is very difficult . . . sometimes you only get 24 hours’ notice,” he said.
Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair chief executive, said this summer would be “materially better” than in 2022 when staff shortages led to an unprecedented set of delays and cancellations.
But he said airlines still faced a “very difficult” challenge, mainly because of the “scandal” of delays and cancellations caused by the French strike.
Europe’s skies are already congested because of the closure of Russian and Ukrainian airspace and Eurocontrol, the EU’s air traffic manager, warned in January of “major” pressure as airlines returned to close to their pre-pandemic flight schedules.
O’Leary added that he expected strikes to continue into April, which would affect the Easter getaway. He said Ryanair had to cancel 60 flights scheduled on both Wednesday and Thursday at short notice.
Europe’s largest low-cost airline also cancelled 230 flights last weekend.
DGAC, the French civil aviation authority, said domestic and regional flight schedules were more likely to be affected than long haul because of the increased disruption involved in rescheduling the latter.
The aviation authority added that it had no visibility into strike actions in the coming weeks because unions only had to notify them shortly before they went on strike.
On Wednesday evening, DGAC asked airlines to cancel more flights over the weekend, including a quarter of those scheduled at Paris-Orly on Sunday.
Ryanair has called on the European Commission to introduce minimum service rules to prioritise flights over France during industrial action.
An EU official said the commission was “closely monitoring” the strikes as it weighed the proper functioning of its internal market with the right to strike.
“The commission is also following up on several complaints received on this issue against France,” the official added.
Lundgren said he hoped the strikes would tail off if the Macron government pushed through its reforms by mid-April as planned.
Carsten Spohr, the Lufthansa boss, said the airline had faced “similar” problems, as well as a one-day strike in Germany last week.
Security staff at Heathrow airport are also due to begin a 10-day walkout on Friday, leading British Airways to cancel about 300 flights.
The warnings came as airlines prepare for the peak summer season, which is expected to be the busiest since the pandemic began in 2020.
The industry is under pressure to improve its operations following chaotic scenes last summer as a result of staff shortages, and all three CEOs told the Airlines4Europe conference in Brussels that they were ready.
“We have to defend against a few bad days ruining the reputation of our industry,” Lufthansa’s Spohr added.
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