Air strike threatens flights to Europe

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HUNDREDS OF thousands of Britons flying to European holiday destinations this weekend face long airport delays from today as air traffic controllers in Aix-en-Provence, France, begin a three-day strike.

Those travelling to Spain's Mediterranean coast and the Balearic Islands - Majorca, Minorca and Ibiza - are likely to be hardest hit.

This weekend, which will be the busiest for package holiday flight departures so far this year, up to a million British holidaymakers are heading for the southern sun, the United States and the Caribbean at the start of the school holidays.

However, delays are inevitable to many European destinations as aircraft are re-routed to avoid flying over southern France, the area controlled by the Aix-en-Provence air traffic controllers.

While flights to Spain's Mediterranean coast and the Balearic islands could be delayed by up to an hour, flights to other European destinations could also be put back because of the the knock-on effect of disruption on other flights. Passengers are being advised to check with their airline or tour operators about the effect of the action on flights and to arrive at the airport on time for their departures.

Air traffic controllers in Aix-en-Provence, who have staged a work-to-rule since 11 July, voted yesterday to strike from today until Sunday to back their demand for the creation of 26 new jobs, shorter hours, higher pay and retirement from the age 55. The centre handles flights to and from south-eastern France, Italy and Spain's Costa Brava and Balearic islands.

Pierre Bossi, the controllers' union leader, warned yesterday: 'The strike will be solid.'

The action will cut the number of flights over the region by 50 per cent and reduce the number of aircraft landing at Nice, Marseilles, Perpignon and Lyons. Gatwick and Heathrow airports are respectively expecting 260,000 and 520,000 people to fly out this weekend.

A Civil Aviation Authority spokesman said yesterday: 'Inevitably there will be delays. These could involve waits of up to an hour on the ground for flights to some parts of Spain and the Balearic islands.'

Keith Betton, of the Association of British Travel Agents, said that delays of between one and two hours were expected on flight to the Balearics. However, British aircraft will probably be diverted down the west coast of France.