March 5, 2024

Strike action threat to summer flights in Europe eases as offer made in staffing dispute

The threat of strike action by air traffic managers which would have caused disruption to European flights over the summer has eased after workers received a new offer in a bitter dispute over staffing.

The union representing staff working for Eurocontrol, which manages flights over Europe, said an offer had been put to its members to resolve the staffing dispute and that it is recommending the deal be accepted.

Union Syndicale Bruxelles (USB), which had announced a pre-warning that strike action could take place but had not yet announced dates, said it expects a “positive outcome to the vote” on the offer.

The dispute with Eurocontrol – which manages flights in the airspace of 41 member nations – relates to the Network Manager Operations Centre (NMOC), responsible for coordinating air-traffic control provisions.

The union claimed the NMOC has a 25 per cent staff shortage and called for more workers to be hired.

It also demanded a “fundamental change in management or manager behaviour” and a roster system that is “based on agreement and not unilaterally imposed”.

On Friday, Henk Korteweg of the USB told The Independent: “Representatives of Union Syndicale at Eurocontrol and representatives of the new director-general [Raúl Medina] have worked around the clock during the last weeks to avoid industrial action.

“This has resulted in an agreement in principle dealing with pre-existing staffing shortages and a way forward for other issues.

“The agreement is of such nature that the Union Syndicale delegation is putting it to a vote with the affected membership with a recommendation to accept the proposal. The vote will close on 1 August.

“After a positive outcome to the vote, the ‘pre-warning’ for industrial action will be withdrawn.”

Even without industrial action, pressure on controllers and flight planners in Europe remains intense.

Air-traffic control is chronically short-staffed in many parts of Europe: during the Covid pandemic, when air traffic numbers collapsed, many experienced controllers left the industry and training has not caught up with demand.

The Eurocontrol Network Operations Plan warns of “high overloads” at key Area Control Centres. These hubs, which include ones in Athens, Budapest, Reims and Warsaw, handle aircraft across wide swathes of airspace.

At times of high overload, a “declared sector capacity” limit is set to prevent controllers from becoming overstretched.

Capping the number of flights that can enter an air-traffic control sector inevitably leads to delays or diversions: planes flying longer routings to avoid the constricted areas. That in turn increases pressure on the rest of the network.

Controllers and flight planners are having to work in a heavily constrained airspace environment, especially in eastern Europe. The war in Ukraine, and the related closure of airspace over Russia and Belarus to western aircraft, means many of the normal routes between Europe and Asia are unavailable.

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