By Joanna Plucinska and Silvia Aloisi
LONDON/PARIS (Reuters) – European aviation is gearing up for Easter travel disruptions marked by strikes and cancellations, in a major test of the industry’s ability to prevent a repeat of last year’s summer holiday season chaos.
Strikes have rolled through France, Portugal, Britain and Germany in recent weeks and could cause air travel disruption in parts of Europe through the Easter holidays, officials at airlines, airports and air traffic authorities told Reuters.
“There will be delays. There’s no doubt about it,” said Steven Moore, who is in charge of air traffic management operations at Eurocontrol.
Details of the delays remain unclear but the warnings illustrate how vulnerable aviation remains to external pressures, despite efforts to avoid a repeat of last year’s queues and cancellations.
Airlines are frustrated at the escalation in industrial action after they have worked for months to tackle the pressing problem of labour shortages via better coordination and by staffing up for a potential return to pre-pandemic traffic levels.
“I think it’s something that we have to plan for and we’re doing our best to try to mitigate that. But it’s, of course, very difficult because … you sometimes get only 24-hours notice,” easyJet CEO Johan Lundgren said.
That is unlikely to quell a debate over the European Union’s strict passenger compensation rules. Airlines say they have to pay compensation without themselves getting compensated for air traffic delays.
Consumer groups say air traffic control strikes are not new and airlines should be quicker to react and pay compensation.
European consumer lobby BEUC said consumer pre-payments for air tickets should be phased out, especially in times of disruption, as airlines often spend that money quickly leaving consumers struggling for months to get their money back.
The spectre of new delays came as France was gripped by the latest in a series of national protests over pension reform on Thursday.
France’s strikes alone have caused thousands of hours of delays so far – sometimes triggering 70,000 minutes of delays in one day, based on data shared by Eurocontrol.
If a flight is delayed early in the day, there is a compounding effect as planes arrive later and take off later in their destination airports, causing systemic issues.
Since March 13, France’s civil aviation authority DGAC has almost daily required airlines to cut their flights by 20% to 30% at several airports, including Paris’s second biggest hub Orly.
Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary has complained that those strikes disrupt the ability of airlines to cross through French airspace, where overflights represent about 15% of European traffic, according to Eurocontrol.
He called last week on the European Commission to do more to stop such strikes hitting overflights, by introducing minimum service rules, though industry experts say strikes are a national issue.
The disruptions are coinciding with a recovery in travel demand. Departures from Britain during the Easter weekend are set to go up 11% compared with last year and by 650% since 2021, although they will remain about 13% lower than before the pandemic, based on Cirium data.
And there’s little sign of reconciliation in France.
Fabrice Criquet, secretary general of the Force Ouvriere union at Paris airports operator ADP, said the only way for the situation to return to normal was for President Emmanuel Macron’s government to withdraw the pension reform.
“Strikes aim to disrupt operations by definition, that’s what they do, we have been protesting for months over this pension reform and will continue to do so,” he told Reuters.
CALL FOR SOLUTIONS
Strikes by labour unions from various industries have caused travel disruptions across Germany in recent weeks, with some industry executives calling for a new approach to the disputes to minimise the ongoing tumult.
At Frankfurt Airport alone, more than 300,000 passengers were unable to fly due to the strikes.
“For us, this has meant a significant million euro amount in terms of lost revenue,” head of Frankfurt Airport Stefan Schulte told Reuters.
“We have to ask ourselves whether it would not be better to have a coordinated truce for critical infrastructure. To not have different strikes at different times, which always affect the overall system so strongly,” he added.
In Portugal, border control officers are set to strike this week as well as train workers.
Algarve’s Hotels and Tourism Enterprises Association have called for preventive action, warning that border control strikes could have dire impacts on the region’s reputation with tourists – a key driver of Algarve’s economy.
Airlines and airports, criticised in the media and parliaments for their handling of last year’s air travel surge, say they are hamstrung by the fact that they have almost no influence on Europe’s spiralling industrial unrest. Other sectors have also been severely hit, however.
“[Our members,] they’re worried, but let’s say they are reasonably worried. They have done a lot of work to make sure that this goes reasonably well,” said Olivier Jankovec, the head of airports industry group ACI Europe.
“How do you prevent strikes? This is not something you can really prevent, because you can’t receive a 20% salary increase like this overnight.”
(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska in Brussels, Silvia Aloisi in Paris, Catarina Demony in Portugal, Nette Nostlinger and Ilona Wissenbach in Frankfurt, Editing by Tim Hepher and Jane Merriman)