The news received little attention in the plethora of news. However, it should revolutionize French air traffic and beyond. A bill proposed by centrist senator Vincent Capo-Canellas, also a former mayor of Le Bourget, was ratified Tuesday evening by a majority vote in the National Assembly, after approval by the Senate last June. The government welcomed, in the person of the Minister of Transport, Clément Beaune, a “protective and balanced” text which will put an end to “an asymmetrical system” at the origin of a “disorganization of the public service”.
It is an understatement to say that French air traffic control benefited before this text from a sort of social state of grace. Until this law is implemented, controllers are not required to individually declare themselves on strike when a union files notice. In the absence of exact information on the extent of participation in the movement, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGAC), the administration which supervises air traffic in France, almost systematically resorts to the minimum service to which it is required. held by law. To ensure the 50% of traffic planned as part of this minimum service, the DGAC finds itself forced to cancel flights as a preventive measure, without knowing exactly the extent of the social movement. Thus, during the movement against pension reform, the organization responsible for supervising air traffic in France canceled 10%, 20%, 30%, even 40% of flights the day before the mobilization days.
Air traffic controllers, perfectly aware of these failures, did not fail to take advantage of them. All they had to do was file a strike notice to severely disrupt air traffic without paying for it with a day of strike and the associated loss of salary, since the flights will be canceled by the administration. Sometimes, on the contrary, the number of strikers exceeds the DGAC's approximations, forcing the organization to cancel additional flights at the last minute, adding disorder to the disorder.
The future law aims precisely to reform this system. “This text makes it possible to avoid the disorganization of air transport and flight cancellations without many strikers. Traffic will be proportionate to the number of strikers,” Senator Vincent Capo-Canellas insists to Le Figaro. The airline sector should welcome this as it has expressed its anger in the face of repeated strikes by French air traffic controllers and the deleterious consequences on traffic. The president and CEO of Ryanair, Michael O'Leary, who does not speak his tongue in his pocket, saw these recurring disruptions as an obstacle to “freedom of travel”. An analysis shared by more than 1.8 million Internet users who signed an online petition intended for the European Commission to fight against the French air traffic control system.
Ryanair's rant is symptomatic of the fed up of an entire sector with this “greviculture” within French air traffic control which undermines the economy of the sky. Passengers harmed during strikes against pension reform, whether business travelers or simple tourists, number in the millions. Airlines, still recovering from the Covid years, had to face an additional cost estimated by Eurocontrol – the European organization for the safety of air navigation – between 40 and 147 euros per minute, depending on the duration of the delay. That is, in total, between 100 and 350 million euros spent on the companies alone. Not to mention the cost of flight cancellations – 10 million euros for Air France for example – and possible route changes.
These general estimates conceal disparities, but give an idea of the considerable cost of air traffic control stoppages. “It’s simple: a plane cannot fly without a controller to guide it,” explains Laurent Timsit, general delegate of the National Federation of Aviation and its Trades (FNAM). This observation is verified both during approach, that is to say during takeoff and landing, and when the aircraft flies over a given territory; the link between the cockpit and the controller is ultimately never broken throughout navigation.
Their essential presence gives air traffic controllers a power of nuisance which they know how to use to make themselves heard. The main union in the sector, the SNCTA (National Union of Air Traffic Controllers), had filed a strike notice for Friday September 15. Finally lifted, it aimed to defend essentially salary demands. The same union had already organized a mobilization on Friday September 16, 2022 for similar reasons. After a day of strike marked by the cancellation of 50% of flights, the controllers won their case.
As Ryanair points out, the profession is accustomed to doing so. Between 2004 and 2016, French air traffic controllers accumulated 254 days of strike, according to a senatorial report published in June 2018. Enough to raise our country to the rank of inveterate European champion of strikes in the sector, far ahead of the Greek runner-up and its 46 strike days over the same period. German controllers, for their part, have only been on strike four days in twelve years. The overwhelming majority of European countries are below the ten-day strike mark over the period.
The report further notes that “each day of strike in France has a much greater impact on European air traffic than for other countries” in Europe. Thus, not only do French traffic controllers stand out for a large volume of strikes, but each of their strikes proves to be much more detrimental to air traffic than if it took place elsewhere on the continent. Result: walkouts by French controllers are the cause of more than two thirds – 67% – of air traffic control strike days in Europe, as well as “96% of delays caused by these strikes” between 2004 and 2016 in Europe .
This striking figure can be explained firstly by geographical reasons. France's position, at the crossroads of Europe, implies denser aircraft traffic: more ground movements (landings and takeoffs) and more overflights.