Walkouts among French air traffic controllers have led to thousands of flight cancellations since the start of the year, raising worries for Easter travel and further denting the image of a country that’s been wracked by protests.

The French civil aviation authority DGAC has asked airlines to limit the number of flights on and off for weeks at Paris Orly and some other airports, at a time when the nation is being roiled by strikes over an unpopular pension reform. 

DGAC expects more disruptions amid Thursday’s nationwide walkouts and protests. Labor action by air traffic controllers not only affects flights to and from France but also leads to turmoil elsewhere in Europe, causing delays for planes that fly over the country to reach other destinations. 

Ryanair Holdings Plc, Europe’s biggest low-cost airline, has gone so far as to ask passengers to sign an online petition urging European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to “keep EU skies open” amid the walkouts. Twenty-five days of strikes among French air traffic controllers in the first three months of the year forced it to cancel 3,080 flights, leaving more than half a million passengers stranded with short notice, the carrier said.

“Everything is completely backed up over Europe,” Ryanair Chief Executive Officer Michael O’Leary said in an interview last week. “Why? because the French have a bunch of air traffic controllers walking off the job engaging in recreational striking.”

Capacity Restrictions

The number of flights under the control of French authorities in the country’s airspace totaled about 220,600 last month, down from roughly 243,000 in March 2019, a spokesman for DGAC said in response to a Bloomberg query. The authority was unable to provide a specific number of canceled flights in France this year related to strikes, nor could it estimate the ripple effects on air travel elsewhere in Europe.

The DGAC doesn’t demand cancellations for flights over France when controllers walk out, but “control capacity restrictions that allow a high level of security on the basis of available workforce may cause delays,” with consequences for air travel in other countries, the spokesman said. At this stage, DGAC is not expecting cancellations for Easter weekend.

While protests in France have calmed over the past week, the unpredictable walkouts are still affecting airline passengers. On Monday, all flights to France from Berlin airport were indicated as delayed. And even though DGAC anticipated no strikes in France on Wednesday, the pilot of an Air France flight from Paris Charles de Gaulle to Berlin blamed air traffic controller walkouts for a delay in takeoff. 

French Airspace

On a British Airways flight from London to Rome the same day, the pilot apologized for expected delays as the airplane took a longer route, preferring to avoid French airspace altogether. 

“It’s a mess and it’s all the fault of strikes in France,” Rosetta Giulia Marchese, a 72-year-old from Genoa, Italy, said by phone after her flight to Orly on budget airline Volotea was canceled last Friday. “I am furious, even though the airline tried to be helpful,” she said. 

Opposition to French President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the minimum retirement age by two years to 64 turned more violent following the government’s decision last month to bypass a legislative vote on the bill. That led to clashes between protesters and riot police, even forcing Britain’s King Charles III to postpone a planned visit to France. Repeated strikes by transport workers, refinery staff and even garbage collectors have disrupted business and daily life. 

The turmoil represents another hurdle for an industry that was hit hard during the Covid-19 pandemic and is still struggling due to staff shortages. In France, air traffic controllers aren’t required to provide a 48-hour notice before strikes, making detailed planning harder and forcing DGAC to cut flights even on some days when no one ultimately walks out.

Last Thursday, DGAC’s requirements meant that Air France had to cancel 32 medium-haul flights at Orly and other French airports, even though the larger hub of Charles de Gaulle was spared. 

To be sure, it’s only a limited number of air traffic controllers that are causing all the trouble, given that Sncta, their biggest labor union, is not calling for strikes. French air traffic controllers, who retire at 59, won’t themselves be impacted by Macron’s reform, but are striking out of sympathy with other workers.