Transport Airlines

Air Traffic Control Strikes and the Quest to Modernize Air Travel in Europe

Jun 24, 2014 5:30 pm

Skift Take

No doubt governments want to make cuts to salaries and staffing, but the current system of air traffic control in Europe is a relic.

— Marisa Garcia

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 / Getty Images

The air traffic control tower at Orly Airport in Paris. / Getty Images


Flights throughout Europe today were cancelled due to a strike by one of France’s unions of Air Traffic Controllers, UNSA-ICNA, scheduled from June 24-29. T

he situation may have been worse, had another French Air Traffic Controllers Union SNCTA joined in, as was originally planned. However, a last-minute understanding between SNCTA members and Frédéric Cuvillier, French Secretary of State for Transport, on progress to modernize the French ATC system, persuaded the SNCTA against participation.

“Governments have recognized the need to break with a blind policy of lowering costs,” said SNCTA in an official statement. “They accepted the principle of a correlation between the demonstrated needs of investments for air traffic control and research funding adapted to these needs.”

The striking union, UNSA-ICNA, claims that plans by the French Directorate General of Civil aviation for development of air traffic control (ATC) systems from 2015-2019 “do not meet the challenges ahead and jeopardize the safety requirements and quality of service guarantees.” The union says French Air Traffic Controllers must contend with antiquated systems including, “computer flight plans dating further back than the 1980s,” and in some cases “controlling routes on strips of paper.”

The union accuses the French government of a “lack of investment” in ATC infrastructure, and urges modernization. The UNSA-ICNA also objects to the French government financing improvements by increasing the national debt, and urges the Ministry of Transport to increase fees by 10% by 2015, “as Germany has done, applying a royalty rate that allows it to recover its costs.”

Tony Tyler, Director General and CEO of IATA, responded to the strike with harsh words in an official statement issued from Geneva this morning. He indicates that “Unions [are] bent on stopping progress and are putting at risk the hard-earned vacations of millions of travelers.”

This is at odds with claims by UNSA-ICNA that they are striking to modernize the ATC system, but Tyler states that the strikes oppose the Single European Sky (SES) agreement, which will unite European Air Traffic Management under a single European regulatory Committee, creating a joint EU structure for regulation, infrastructural development, and including formal cost-efficiency benchmarks. Achieving the objectives of SES has been an ongoing program since 2004, but has yet to be realized.

According to Tyler, “SES would transform the costly and inefficient patchwork of 37 civilian air traffic control organizations in Europe into a seamless and efficient air traffic management system.”

Tyler indicates: “There are more borders in the skies over Europe than exist on land. And that comes at a great cost,” and adds that the strike by UNSA-ICNA “is indefensible.” He also refers to striking air traffic controllers as a “privileged few” and claims that the objective of their strike is “to protect themselves from the ‘efficiency’ that every other industry and worker is challenged to achieve.” Tyler states that he expects France “to make a strong intervention to protect travelers from this malicious and unjustified strike action.”

In a reply to Skift on the objections raised by UNSA-ICNA, an IATA spokesperson advised that the existing plans by the French Directorate General of Civil aviation, to which UNSA-ICNA refers, are “the heart of SES,” explaining that the SES committee voted for “a cost reduction of 3.3% per annum in the unit rate.” The IATA spokesperson told Skift: “The call from UNSA-ICNA to increase charges is out of step with this important commitment,” adding, “without these cost efficiencies, the airlines cannot afford to fund the EUR30 billion earmarked to modernize the system Europe-wide.”

Airlines throughout Europe, including Air France, are adapting to the strikes through some cancellations and re-routing of flight paths which reduce the strain over French airspace. Because the strikes were announced in advance, plans were already in place, though there was hope that it could be avoided altogether.

Though summer holidays have begun, the strike by UNSA-ICNA will end on the 29th of this month, before the peaks in July and August.

Marisa Garcia has worked in aviation since 1994, spending 16 years on the design and manufacturing of cabin interiors and cabin safety equipment. She shares insights gained from this experience onFlight Chic and Tweets as @designerjet.

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