Ryanair Holdings chief Michael O’Leary has had striking French air traffic controllers in his sights for years. Every summer, these workers, who can effectively disrupt millions of European holidaymakers, embark on what the Irish airline boss calls “recreational strikes”, stranding or delaying many travellers.
The problem is worse this year, as air traffic controllers have joined more general protests against French president Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the country’s retirement age to 64. In fact, they have downed tools on 57 days so far in 2023, and plan another strike on June 6th, the first week of school holidays.
On Wednesday, O’Leary and Ryanair handed a petition with 1.1 million signatures from passengers to EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen calling on her to protect overflights through French air space during strikes, as is already done in Italy, Greece and Spain.
This would allow services through French skies, but which do not land in the country, to continue unaffected by strikes. These are the flights worst-hit at the moment, as France actually protects domestic journeys. That is a problem for the rest of Europe because so many flights between other countries have to travel through its air space.
That means French strikes can hit people flying between Germany and Spain, or Ireland and Italy, while not affecting anyone flying within France itself. O’Leary argues that this is unfair. He maintains that Ryanair’s solution gets around this while not compromising air traffic control staff’s right to strike.
O’Leary and Ryanair have been saying this for some time, while Airlines 4 Europe, the industry lobby of which the Irish carrier is a member, also backs Europe-wide air-traffic control reform. So far the commission has swerved the issue, saying that it would require the agreement of all member states.
However, some observers say that the EU recognises there is a problem. So the question may well be when will it act? As we are already into June, this summer seems unlikely, but there could well be some sort of solution agreed by next year. In the meantime, large numbers of European holidaymakers will likely face more disruption this summer.