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Airlines urge bosses to stop summer action set to hit holidaymakers

Airlines are pleading with European air traffic operators to stave off a summer of strike action with possible walkouts putting flights for thousands of families at risk.

Airlines UK, a trade body representing EasyJet, British Airways and Ryanair, urged Eurocontrol to help avoid industrial action by air traffic control managers that could see flights delayed or cancelled during the school holidays.

Workers at Eurocontrol’s Network Manager Operations Centre (NMOC) in Brussels, which oversees air traffic across the European air traffic network, belonging to the Union Syndicale Bruxelles (USB) union, have warned of possible industrial action over the next six months.

The union has called for another 20 controllers to be hired immediately, pointing to a 25 per cent shortfall in staff of around 40 controllers.

It comes as passengers were warned of delays and cancellations due to the closure of airspace over war-torn Ukraine, which has also led to air traffic control being overloaded at key popular locations.

Surging demand for holidays – which is returning to near pre-pandemic levels – and staff shortages are hitting airports at the busiest time of the travel calendar, industry insiders have said, with a lack of air traffic controllers one of the main problems impacting the sector.

FILE - A British Airways Airbus A380 aircraft performs its demonstration flight during the first day of the 50th Paris Air Show at Le Bourget airport, north of Paris, June 17, 2013. U.S. and British cybersecurity officials warned Wednesday, June 7, 2023, that a Russian cyber-extortion gang's hack of a file-transfer program popular with corporations could have widespread global impact. Initial data-theft victims include the BBC, British Airways and Nova Scotia's government. (AP Photo/Francois Mori, File)
A union has warned of a strike by air traffic control managers at Eurocontrol, which manages European air space (Photo: Francois Mori/AP)

Meanwhile, the Border Force union warned malfunctioning passport e-gates at UK airports could lead to long queues, with staff potentially also being hauled away to deal with the migrant small boat crisis despite a shortage of trained officers.

Airlines UK said: “We urge Eurocontrol to reach agreement as soon as possible to avoid any potential disruption for airlines and their customers, as airlines also try to minimise disruption from air traffic control congestion owing to a more constrained European airspace.”

Ryanair said the planned walkouts showed the need for reform of air traffic control, as the budget carrier urged EU chief, Ursula von der Leyen, to take action to protect overflights.

The NMOC handles over 10 million flights a year, with daily peaks before the pandemic reaching over 37,000 flights.

Eurocontrol staff manage data from member states across the continent and handle more than 96,000 messages a day from pilots and airlines, which must be checked to keep airspace safe.

John Grant, chief analyst at the data firm Official Aviation Guide (OAG), said the strike could affect every part of Europe, including the UK, Italy, France and Germany and be “quite significant”.

But Eurocontrol have insisted “it is premature to speculate on any potential impact” of a potential strike.

“The real issue is there’s not enough air traffic controllers and there’s not enough resources in the system at the moment post-Covid to cope with the recovery in demand that we’re seeing,” Mr Grant told i.

“It takes a period of time to train an air traffic controller and a lot of people who left or retired during Covid have not come back to the industry.

“And it’s a zero risk environment so until you’ve got that competency and on the job feel and knowledge, it’s going to be a slow recovery process.”

Hundreds of flights a day were also being diverted away from Ukrainian airspace due to the war which had led to increased pressure on the system as it tries to “squeeze all of this traffic through a couple of corridors”, he added.

John Strickland, from JLS Consulting, said a “significant volume” of flights would be affected by a strike adding to a “complex mix” of problems hitting air travel, which has already seen walkouts by French air traffic control staff.

“If this is a more widespread strike affecting several control areas in Europe, then it’s a real challenge for airlines,” he said.

“I can think of one leading airline CEO who said to me this summer that he was very confident they as an airline were well resourced for the summer, but he was equally very conscious of the unknowns. And this is a very large example of that.”

Paul Charles, CEO of travel consultancy The PC Agency, said a strike by air traffic controllers would be “the most damaging industrial action to hit the aviation industry for many years”.

Meanwhile, Lucy Moreton, an officer from Border Force union, the Immigration Service Union (ISU), said dated hardware was causing continued problems with e-passport gates.

In May, passengers faced hours-long queues after arriving in the UK at major terminals including Heathrow and Gatwick after the automated machines failed due to IT problems.

“We’ve got traffic at and in many locations exceeding pre pandemic levels now. So the tourist summer will be as busy as it would have been had the pandemic not happened,” she said.

“But we are still very short staffed. Border Force are recruiting, but takes time to get people through the pre-employment checks and get them trained. So it is likely to be a challenging summer.”

An expected peak in small boat crossings across the Channel could also impact air travel, with Border Force now in sole charge of the crisis after the Ministry of Defence handed over operational control to the Home Office in January.

“If there are a large number of small boats, staff will be pulled from airports to deal with it. Pulling them from airports leads to queues. And if the e-gates collapse for some reason that leads to more queues,” she added.

“If the small boats arrive in the numbers that are sort of expected, then Border Force officers will have to be drawn from Dover and Gatwick in the first instance.

“And then from Heathrow. London City, Stansted, Luton, and eventually, as we have done in the past, we will draw Border Force officers from airports across the country.

“We’re already short staffed. We don’t have the staffing at the moment to deal with both issues.”

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