French air traffic controllers' strike latest European labor trouble

A French air traffic controllers' strike has grounded dozens of flights in Paris, one of Europe's busiest air travel hubs. The first hints of spring appear to be bringing strike fever to Europe.

By , Staff writer

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    A passenger sleeps at Berlin's Tegel airport yesterday. Several flights were canceled due to a strike by french air traffic controllers' in Nice, southeastern France.
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With chills from a ghastly European winter in abeyance, thoughts on the continent are turning to labor strikes. This week, a French air traffic controllers' strike has roiled European travel, grounding half of the regional flights from Orly and a quarter from Charles DeGaulle, the two main Paris hubs, until Saturday.

French air traffic controllers, currently among the most well paid in Europe and required to work only 100 days a year, are angry at a proposal to consolidate air traffic control with some of their European neighbors, which they fear will lead to salary and benefit reductions.

Air travel-associated strikes in recent days have created delays and ticket-counter drama elsewhere as well. Pilots for Lufthansa ended a one-day strike last night, but there will be routing and delays until Friday, authorities say. In all, some 800 flights have been affected.

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Now British Airways cabin crews, who put a holiday scare in travelers with a proposed Christmas strike, are again threatening a walk out.

Cost-cutters, workers at odds

The global economy, combined with a host of low-cost alternative airlines, have put British Airways and Lufthansa workers at odds with cost-cutters in management, at a time when a new less-regulated “open skies” policy for Europe has set in. It appears that unions are using the threat of strikes as a primary tactic. Lufthansa pilots agreed this week to a court-ordered suspension of the strike until March 8 -- with job security guarantees that would not allow their compensation, generally one-third to twice as high as those at regional airlines like Austrian Air, to be renegotiated. BA crew strikes were preempted by a judge last December.

This week, British Airways crew members voted on a strike that could begin within 28 days, though apparently not during Easter.

"Our members are not mindless militants, but men and women committed to their company and their profession,” said cabin crew union official Len McCluskey. “So it is right that they want to be consulted on changes to their jobs.”

BA officials fired back that they would not allow the union “to ruin this company.”

The advent of cheap European short-hop carriers like EasyJet and RyanAir has brought fares in the 50 euro to 100 euro range for travel between Rome, Berlin, and Paris – while larger national carriers charge far more. The result has been a spate of mergers. Air France and KLM joined, and British Airways is seeking ties with Iberia and American Airlines.

Ground control isn't happy

But not everyone is happy with consolidation. French air controllers appear to be resisting plans to create a regional agency that would bring air traffic controllers in Switzerland, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands under unified regulation.

Currently, the skies above Europe are divided into 27 blocs, which is more favorable to jobs than efficiency – creating fears among unions. French authorities at the Cour de Comptes, the state accounting office, have attacked the union for being “opaque” regarding vacation scheduling policies in a work year of 100 days.

Elsewhere in Europe, Spanish unions are threatening a strike tomorrow over a government plan to raise the retirement age from age 65 to 67 – a plan proposed by Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero though not yet ratified. Marches may come off in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, and smaller cities

Greece anticipates general strike

In Greece, fears of significant cuts in public spending in the wake of proposed austerity measures stemming from the Greek economic crisis is expected to bring a general strike of all unions, including a news black out as journalists will also participate – shutting down government offices, transportation, courts, and schools.

In France, five of six oil refineries have been shut down for the seventh day by workers at the oil giant Total – with gas supplies reportedly nearly out at 100 of some 4,000 gas stations. The workers want guarantees that no further refineries will be shut in the wake of the closing of a plant in Dunkirk.

Petroleum authorities say France has seven days of fuel left ,while the government environment minister says there are 10 days of gas stocks left.

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