Air traffic-controllers strike: Hundreds of flights grounded across Europe

An estimated 5,000 to 6,000 passengers flying between the UK and Italy will be affected

At the end of the busiest summer in the history of European aviation, a four-hour strike by Italian air-traffic controllers has caused the cancellation of hundreds of flights.

Controllers belonging to the LICSA union planned a stoppage between 12.30pm and 4.30pm. They are angry about plans for a “Single European Sky,” which they believe will jeopardise safety as well as costing jobs in air-traffic control (ATC).

This controversial EU project has triggered many strikes over the years. Ahead of today’s industrial action, Eurocontrol in Brussels warned of “Heavy delays expected for departing and arriving traffic”.

Ryanair pro-actively grounded 96 flights. with further disruption possible as the effects of the strike began to bite. Services from Stansted, Liverpool and Manchester were affected. The airline’s communications director, Robin Kiely, said: “We sincerely apologise to all passengers who have had their travel plans disrupted by these unjustified ATC strikes.”

Ryanair’s rival, easyJet, has cancelled 18 flights to and from the UK - mostly from Gatwick but also from Edinburgh, Manchester and Bristol. Passengers were notified yesterday and told to re-book online, but some complained that the system was not working properly.

Phil Betts, who was due to fly from Bari to Gatwick, said: “Three of us spent two hours attempting to re-book at, and in the end we drove to Bari airport. There was no easyJet representative at the airport, and the clerk on the ticket desk said he had no authority to transfer our booking.” Dr Betts eventually got through by phone and is now booked to fly from Rome on Monday.

British Airways, which cancelled flights from Heathrow and Gatwick to Rome, Milan and Verona, planned to deploy larger aircraft on other Italian flights to provide enough capacity. Budget airlines do not have that option.

The Independent estimates the cancellations affected between 5,000 and 6,000 passengers due to fly between the UK and Italy. Passengers are not due any financial compensation under EU rules, because a strike is counted as “extraordinary circumstances”. However, carriers have a strict duty of care to travellers whose flights are disrupted. Passengers stranded in Italy are entitled to meals and accommodation at the airline’s expense until they can be brought home.

With airlines achieving record bookings this summer, empty seats on subsequent services are proving hard to find. Last month Ryanair and easyJet reported “load factors” of 93 and 94 per cent respectively, implying the average flight had only a handful of empty seats.

On Friday, easyJet operated the highest number of flights in its 20-year history: 1,451, carrying 210,000 passengers.

Last weekend, Gatwick set a new record for a single-runway airport by handling 906 arriving and departing aircraft - 200 more than the nearest rival, San Diego in California. Steve Anderson, NATS General Manager at Gatwick, said: “To achieve over 900 runway movements means everything has to be working in perfect sync – from optimising the order of arriving and departing flights through to fine tuning the arrival spacing.”