Last updated: 03:10 PM ET, Wed April 27 2016

Can Europe Stop Its Frequent Airline Strikes?

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | April 27, 2016

Can Europe Stop Its Frequent Airline Strikes?

Strikes have become an altogether too common occurrence at European airports. This week, air traffic controllers in France and baggage handlers and ground staff in Germany will walk off the job in an effort to get wage increases, more retirement benefits and better work conditions. 

If you are thinking that strikes by airport workers are becoming more and more common on the continent, you are right. According the Airlines for Europe (A4E), the trade organization that represents major European airlines, French air traffic controllers have been on strike for a total of 44 days in the past seven years. If you do the math, that works out to approximately one strike day for every two months. This total does not include strikes that have caused flight disruptions in other countries. 

These strikes are a major thorn in the side of airlines. Each major work stoppage causes hundreds of flights to be canceled. Strikes in France, Greece, Italy and Belgium caused a total of nearly 2,000 cancellations in March and April. Thousands more flights were delayed during the same period. 

It is pretty clear that these strikes can severely affect a carrier’s bottom line. The seemingly unstoppable trend of union-ordered work stoppages is one of the biggest issues that A4E is currently dealing with. Now, other organizations are also chiming in to stop what has become a major roadblock for the continued growth of Europe’s air travel industry. 

READ MORE: European Airlines Lobbying for US-Style Aviation Rules

Ahead of the latest round of strikes in France and Germany, IATA director general Tony Tyler called for the creation of contingency plans so that strikes would not cause any disruptions. He was speaking in Brussels about recent Belgian ATC strikes, but the message is the same across Europe: “When Belgian controllers suddenly and simultaneously all feel too ill to work there is no technical reason why other European ANSPs couldn’t do the job for them – with a little advance planning.”  

There is actually an effort already underway to make an idea similar to Tyler’s a reality. The European Commission has started an initiative that it has dubbed Single European Sky. The idea, which has been in the works for some time, is to create a continent-wide air traffic control system that could be used by all airlines. The argument is that this would create a safer, more seamless infrastructure that European airlines could benefit from. 

Countries on the continent are still largely in charge of their own air traffic control systems. However, if the Single Sky plan is ever fully implemented, it would create larger “blocks” that would make air traffic control more streamlined and efficient. These blocks would be established without regard to national borders.

Many ATC unions are against the Single Sky plan because it would result in job cuts. So it is likely that if the plan is ever fully implemented, there would be more and more strikes in the months leading up to its launch. In short, things would get much worse before they got better.  

While some fliers are sympathetic to airport workers who have to deal with rapidly increasing levels of air traffic across Europe, most are opposed to the repeated strikes, since they obviously accomplish little.

READ MORE: What Are Passengers’ Rights in the Event of an Airline Strike?

Ryanair, which has been especially vocal about what it considered unnecessary disruptions caused by the strikes, is circulating a petition called Keep Europe’s Skies Open. The petition, which can be signed online, will be presented to the EU Commission and the European Parliament once one million signatures are gathered. The ultimate goal would be to make it illegal for air traffic controllers and other vital airport workers to strike. (Currently, EU militaries and law enforcement agencies are not allowed to strike).  

Where will this leave air traffic controllers? The workers could still legally join unions. However, they would have to air their grievances through a mediator and make demands through a process of legally binding arbitration. Considering how poorly the tactic of striking has been working over the past seven years, this kind of change could actually be beneficial for them. 

For now, however, airlines and travelers will have to put up with frequent strikes as they hope for some sort of resolution or decisive action from Brussels. 

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