Strike blocks open skies flight path

Ready for take off? Some French aircraft may be grounded but the great EU monetary-union Jumbo is trundling down the runway

The symbolism was, to say the least, unfortunate. The official opening of the era of Open Skies in Europe began with most of the flights of the largest French internal airline grounded by a strike.

From this month any airline in the European Union can, in theory, offer flights between any two EU airports, including two cities in another country. France, which has the biggest single domestic air market, is the most lucrative potential target for other European carriers. British Airways has already muscled in. Lufthansa is said to be considering a network of French domestic flights, linked to global flights from its Frankfurt hub.

The stoppage by ground staff at Air Inter Europe yesterday were a protestagainst this long-promised brave new world of cheaper and more plentiful European air-travel. The French government has ordained the gradual merger of the two loss-making, state-controlled air lines - Air France, for external flights, and Air Inter, for internal flights - specifically to face up to the increased competition.

The 11,000 staff at Air Inter, which now becomes Air France Europe, fear jobs will be lost and privileges eroded. The international carrier, with 46,000 staff, is engaged in its own programme of restructuring. Air Inter pilots, who fear their promotion will be frozen, began a series of strikes last week. Yesterday was the turn of the ground crews. Shuttle flights from Paris Orly to Marseilles, Nice and Toulouse were maintained. Other flights were cancelled. Further stoppages are expected next weekend.

This was an inauspicious beginning to the era of Open Skies: but all is not quite as it seems. Air industry experts believe the French government has taken advantage of the open market policy to push through a rationalisation of the publicly-owned French airlines. Yesterday's deadline was more symbolic than real. Many countries, including France, have already introduced the more relaxed regulations legislated in Brussels two years ago. There has already been some impact on the number and price of flights within the EU. Ticket prices have fallen by about 10 per cent in the last three years and are expected to continue to fall.

But there remains a wide gap between the theory of free competition and the reality. Potential competitors find their wings clipped by the shortage of landing and taking-off slots at the biggest European airports. On the other hand, there is a genuine problem with overcrowding at the main Paris airport, Charles de Gaulle-Roissy and last week the French government announced plans to build two new runways at the airport in the next three years.

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