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Europe’s strikes may spell more flights havoc

REUTERS/Lucien Libert
Passengers walk on the road with their luggages as airport workers on strike outside the Terminal 1 at the Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport, near Paris, on March 23, 2023

Strikes across Europe have led to a spike in flight cancellations and delays, and driven down bookings to cities such as Paris, despite airlines’ efforts to avoid a repeat of last year’s disruption.

During the Easter holiday weekend from April 5 to 11, flight cancellations and delays of more than three hours were higher than in 2022 and 2019, according to flight claim management firm AirHelp. France and the UK were worst affected.

“The situation quickly deteriorated as France was sinking into the pension reform crisis. Charles de Gaulle airport is negatively affected, both as a destination and as a hub,” said Olivier Ponti, VP of insights at travel data firm ForwardKeys.

In France, where air traffic control staff were on strike in recent weeks, 62 percent of flights were on time, compared with 75 percent in 2022 and 76 percent in 2019 before the pandemic halted international travel, AirHelp data showed.

Some 33,300 flights were cancelled this year over Easter, compared with 7,800 last year, while 9,000 flights were delayed by more than three hours, compared to 6,800 last year.

Transfers and planned stays through Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris dropped by around 75 percent compared to 2019 levels by mid-March, according to ForwardKeys.

Airports operator Aéroports de Paris estimated on Monday that it had lost around 470,000 passengers between January and March because of the strikes.

In Britain, border strikes also caused disruption at airports across the country, with airports in London facing the largest delays, according to AirHelp.

Around 73 percent of flights were on time, compared with 76 percent in 2022 and 81 percent in 2019. There were 33,700 flights cancelled, compared with 26,600 last year, while 10,800 flights, which made up 1 percent of all total flights, were delayed by more than three hours, up from 9,500 last year.

Passenger rights payouts

The disruptions from prolonged labour strife could lead to escalating costs for airlines, leading some CEOs to call on the European Commission to intervene.

This year’s Easter holiday was seen as a test of the industry’s ability to cope with the influx of travellers after adding staff.

But there’s a particular worry that continuing strikes might lead to a decline in tourist traffic, which was set to rebound to pre-pandemic levels this summer.

Tickets from Europe to Charles de Gaulle airport fell by 30 percent compared to 2019 during the week of March 16, ForwardKeys said, although they dropped by only 8 percent from the United States.

The strikes look set to continue. On Saturday President Emmanuel Macron signed into law a deeply unpopular bill to raise France’s state pension age. Unions called for the months of mass protests, which started in January, to continue.

In Germany, Hamburg airport cancelled all departures on Thursday and Friday due to a strike by security control workers called by union Verdi.

Air traffic authority Eurocontrol previously warned that delays could continue into the northern hemisphere summer, especially if strikes keep going.

Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary said last month it was a “scandal” that French strikes had blocked many flights over the country’s airspace, disrupting services including the busy tourist route between Britain and Spain.

Under Europe’s passenger rights laws, airline customers who face delays of many hours are entitled to compensation, long a sore point for airlines struggling with razor thin margins.

Airlines say airports and other stakeholders should also pay into compensation to consumers, so the burden isn’t entirely on them.