French strike adds to European air travel woes

24th February 2010, Comments 0 comments

Travellers in Europe faced more misery on Tuesday as French air traffic controllers launched a five-day strike and British and German airlines sought to head off threats of industrial action.

PARIS - A quarter of flights from Paris Charles de Gaulle, a major international hub, were cancelled, along with around half out of Paris Orly, which mainly serves domestic routes and the French overseas territories.

Queues were building up at Orly, but most passengers were resigned as 17 flights flashed up "cancelled" on information screens. Air France has vowed to maintain most long-haul services during the strike.

Four French unions have called the strike in order to protest against the planned merger of the Belgian, Dutch, French, German, Luxembourg and Swiss air traffic control networks.

French controllers fear the merger will end their protected role as French state employees, but the French aviation authority DGAC has insisted that its status will not be changed.

France's national audit office gave a severe assessment of the air traffic control sector last month. It estimated controllers get 30 weeks' holiday a year, winning generous allowances because bosses fear disputes with them.

Beyond France, more widespread chaos was prevented, or at least postponed, late Monday, when German flag-carrier Lufthansa persuaded pilots to return to negotiations after only one day of a planned four-day stoppage.

Meanwhile, British Airways faced the threat of a crippling protest after cabin crew voted by more than 80 percent in favour of new strike action, the fruit of a long-running and bitter dispute over working conditions.

British Airways, which has forecast a record loss in its current financial year, says it wants to review the working conditions of its cabin crew, who are paid more than their counterparts at other airlines.

The cabin crews' union, Unite, is angry at plans to use fewer crew on flights, freeze pay and apply different working conditions to new staff.

"We will not allow Unite to ruin this company," the airline warned, in a statement. "Should a strike take place, we will do everything we can to protect our customers' travel plans."

Lufthansa, Europe's biggest airline in terms of passenger numbers, said Tuesday it hoped to get services running normally by the end of the week as talks with unions got under way.

The firm agreed late on Monday to hold negotiations with the pilots' union Cockpit, ending a strike that was expected to last four days and cost the firm up to 100 million euros (136 million dollars).

"Our goal is to have the network running at 100 percent by Friday at the latest," airline spokesman Klaus Walther told ZDF television.

The union is pressing for a 6.4-percent pay raise but its main demand is that pilots not lose their jobs when Lufthansa begins to operate more flights using cheaper foreign affiliates.

Lufthansa, which normally offers 1,800 flights daily, had scrubbed 800 as a preventive measure ahead of the strike. This special schedule was also in force on Tuesday.

European airlines have been fighting for survival as they battle with the low-cost airlines poaching customers, soaring fuel costs and the worst global recession in decades.

The French strike also prompted flight cancellations in Geneva and in Belgium at Brussels airport with delays at nearby Charleroi, air authorities said. Some French provincial airports were closed.

"I was supposed to leave at 8:20 am for Barcelona but my flight is cancelled," said Bruno Lacroix, 49, who turned up early at Orly only to be told to come back and get a flight in the evening.

"I'm crossing my fingers but I have no guarantee for the return flight on Friday."


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