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European Air Travel at Risk: Air Traffic Control Warns of Strikes Amidst Staffing Crisis

A trade union representing air traffic controllers across the continent threatens strike action which could cause more than 12,000 flight delays or cancellations per day

by Lauren Smith

July 10, 2023

As many as 12,600 flights a day could be delayed or canceled across Europe during the peak travel season as air traffic controllers withdraw their labor in a dispute over staff shortages, compensation, and scheduling.

Eurocontrol, which manages air space across the continent, said that one of its trade unions, The Union Syndicale Bruxelles (USB), has threatened industrial action during tense talks over staff levels and working conditions.

Photo: Frankfurt Airport. Courtesy of Juho S / Unsplash

The union, representing European civil servants, including air traffic controllers at the Eurocontrol Network Manager Operations Centre, has formally warned of its intention to strike within the next six months. Specific dates have not been revealed yet, but they may be announced as early as Monday if the talks with Eurocontrol executives over the weekend are unsuccessful.

One of USB’s main demands is that Eurocontrol immediately hire more air traffic controllers and address a staffing shortfall of around 25%, or 40 workers, at the Network Manager Operations Center. Air traffic control centers have been short-handed since the pandemic when many older controllers retired and weren’t replaced. Travel experts warn that the shortage of air traffic controllers is already leading to flight disruption, even without staff walking out.

In a letter to management seen by the Times, the USB wrote: “As difficult as industrial action is on everyone, we see no other path forward than to inform you of our decision to progress [with strikes].”

The union says its demands are “lawful, strong and fair” and “in the interest of the agency, the network manager, our stakeholders (operational and member states), the flying public at large and ourselves as loyal employees of the agency.”

Photo: Courtesy of Josue Isai Ramos / Unsplash

Eurocontrol manages around 33,000 flights daily, with the number set to rise to 34,000 on Fridays during July and August, and employees process 96,000 messages from pilots and staff each day.

Eurocontrol said it is “making every effort to keep negotiations open [with the union] and to find a constructive way forward.”

“As no notice of specific industrial action has been received, it is premature to speculate on any potential impact,” a spokesperson for Eurocontrol said.

However, industry sources warned that the impact on summer travel could be significant, with one unnamed cautioning that “in a full-blown strike, 20 to 30% of flights would be at least delayed.”

A senior source at an airline told the newspaper that a strike by air traffic controllers could be “massive and extremely disruptive.” It alleged that air traffic controllers have no contingency plans for such industrial action.

Last month, hundreds of flights, including 900 by Ryanair, were canceled due to a 34-hour strike by French air traffic controllers between June 28 and 30. The controllers went on strike to protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to increase the country’s pension age. This shows how industrial action can disrupt travel schedules.

Photo: Ryanair, Boeing 737-800. Courtesy of Portuguese Gravity / Unsplash

Airlines UK, representing carriers including Ryanair, urged Eurocontrol to “reach an agreement as soon as possible” with air traffic controllers and their unions. Such an agreement would “avoid any potential disruption for airlines and their customers,” the trade group said.

However, travelers may need to brace themselves for a repeat of last summer’s chaos, when post-pandemic staffing shortages at airlines, airports, and air traffic control centers led to widespread disruption of flights.