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Misery for travellers as air traffic strike bites: Delays of up to four hours predicted by tomorrow as French controllers' action disrupts busy weekend

SERIOUS delays were building up at Britain's airports last night as the French air traffic controllers' strike began to take effect. The disruption is likely to get worse over the weekend with waits of up to four hours predicted by tomorrow evening.

Fears that the action would instantly cause long delays for passengers flying to European holiday destinations proved unfounded yesterday with many early flights leaving on time or only slightly late.

While early morning flights for those travelling to Spain's Mediterranean coast and the Balearic Islands - Majorca, Minorca and Ibiza - got off on time yesterday, later in the day delays of up to two hours were building up at Britain's main airports.

Britannia Airways, the country's biggest charter airline company, reported delays of up to two hours later yesterday but predicted waits of up to four hours by Sunday night. Air 2000 afternoon flights to Minorca and Naples were delayed by up to an hour and several Monarch Airline flights to and from Minorca and from Majorca were also delayed by up to an hour and 20 minutes. British Airways reported that four of its flights - to Montpelier, Nice, Lyons and Marseilles - had been delayed for up to 20 minutes.

Last night, flights from Manchester airport were being delayed by up to three hours and entertainers were being employed to amuse the children.

Further disruption has been caused by a baggage handlers' strike at Naples, with several flights having to divert to Rome.

This weekend is the busiest for package holiday flight departures so far this year. With school holidays starting, up to 1 million British holidaymakers will head for the sun in the United States, the Caribbean and Spain and its islands. Passengers are being advised to check with airlines or tour operators about the effect of the action on flights and to arrive at the airport on time for their departures.

Yesterday British aircraft were being rerouted to the west of Aix-en-Provence, where the French air traffic controllers are staging a three-day strike. They will fly over the Bay of Biscay and part of the Atlantic before returning to Spain. The detour means slightly longer flight times and more expense for the airlines. A Gatwick spokeswoman said that three out of four of its flights to the Balearics were being rerouted.

The controllers are striking until Sunday to back their demand for 26 new jobs, shorter hours, higher pay and retirement from the age of 55. The control centre handles flights to and from south-eastern France, Italy and Spain's Costa Brava and the Balearic islands.

The action has cut the number of flights over the region by 50 per cent and reduced 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.

Richard Hedges, Britannia's communications manager, said yesterday that return flights were picking up delays of up to two hours. 'We are looking at delays of three or four hours or so by the end of the weekend.'

Captain Mike Poole, operations director of Monarch Airlines, said it was too early to assess the effect of the dispute because most of Monarch's flights would be leaving last night and today. 'What state we will be in on Sunday night is anybody's guess,' he said.

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