A more demanding job than air-traffic control is difficult to imagine. The prime task of the traffic police of the skies is to separate planes by at least five nautical miles horizontally (a distance that could be covered in just 36 seconds) and 1,000 feet vertically. They must respond instantly and appropriately when one component of their aerial choreography has a mechanical or medical emergency – in a universe where everything is moving in different directions at hundreds of miles an hour. The men and women who work all hours to ensure our safety are also under pressure to squeeze ever-increasing capacity out of a frustratingly finite and constant supply of airspace.
Individuals with the right blend of dedication and expertise are rare. Accordingly, they are highly valued and well paid. And, as the French air-traffic controllers have demonstrated to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of passengers this week, they possess a formidable power to disrupt.
The SNCTA union represents the custodians of the busiest skies in Europe. Their members oppose a specific plan to raise their retirement age from 57 to 59, and a more general proposal to smooth out wrinkles in Europe's hyperactive skies. The "Single European Sky" project aims to erase national boundaries, cutting complexity and cost – notably in the number of controllers needed. This week the union's call went out: "Without a massive mobilisation of all controllers, we expose ourselves to a rapid and uncoordinated deterioration of our working conditions."
At negligible cost to themselves – the loss of a couple of days' wages – the controllers can exercise their right to withdraw their labour and wreak harm out of all proportion to their numbers.
The economic damage is huge. The airlines will take a hit of around £50m in total for the two days of la grève this week, in lost revenue and extra costs: they are obliged to care for every stranded passenger until they can find a way home. The extra costs will largely be borne by Air France, Ryanair and easyJet, and will be passed on to passengers in the form of higher fares.
Owners of airport hotels may be ordering champagne by the magnum this weekend. But their extra profits are dwarfed by the collateral damage to other businesses. Among the cancellations on Thursday were easyJet's 8am flight from Gatwick to Malaga and Ryanair's afternoon departure from Liverpool to Barcelona. Many passengers will have opted to abandon their holiday or business trip, and claim a refund of their fare. The taxi drivers, tour guides and restaurateurs of the Costa del Sol and Catalonia will lose out financially – while the passengers who had the temerity to book a weekend away lose out emotionally after being caught up in a dispute that has nothing to do with them, or the countries they want to fly between.
The personal cost is hard to quantify, but Gemma Hartley gives a good account of what can happen. She flew out on Easter Sunday to the Moroccan city of Fès.
"We were due to fly back on Wednesday evening, but we got a text at 6pm on Tuesday saying the flight was cancelled. Rushing back to our riad I tried to call Ryanair, but I couldn't get through. I tried to rebook but there were no flights until well into the following week. I needed to be home on the Thursday, so had to book a Royal Air Maroc flight leaving at 6.15am the next morning, via Casablanca to Gatwick.
"That flight ended up being delayed, and we finally reached Stansted just after 8pm, the same time as we had expected to arrive on the plane. So we lost our final day in the fantastic city of Fès. No hammam, no leather-slipper haggling."
You can't put a price on replacing a day of joyful indulgence with sheer stress.
Vive la liberté
The union was free to wreck Gemma's holiday with impunity. And long may that right prevail: from the perspective of the decent passenger stuck in a departure lounge, the only thing worse than air-traffic controllers going on strike would be to live in a society where air-traffic controllers were banned from stopping work.
In 1981, America's air-traffic controllers went on strike in a campaign for better pay and conditions. More than 11,000 of them were promptly sacked by President Ronald Reagan. To rub salt into the wound, he banned them from working for the government for life (a penalty lifted by Bill Clinton in 1993). That was a personal cost out of all proportion to the damage the controllers were causing.
Thankfully, in Europe the right to strike is respected. But if future stoppages, set for 16-18 April and 29 April to 2 May, go ahead, then the financial and human cost will be of almost volcanic scale.
A danger for Air France is that British passengers will rationally decide to fly with a different airline. Travellers booked from Hong Kong or Havana to the UK via Paris this week will have reached Charles de Gaulle airport only to find their onward connections, everywhere from Exeter to Aberdeen, had been cancelled.
With 39 days of French air-traffic control strikes since 2010, plus the fortnight's pilots' strike at Air France last year, the average disruption over the past five years amounts to one day a month.
The typical British passenger on Air France takes a four-hop journey: a flight to Paris from their local airport, an onward connection and the converse when coming home. With a one-in-30 chance of any Air France flight being disrupted, the unkind arithmetic of probability implies that the odds against a smooth journey for a four-hop trip shorten uncomfortably to just 7/1. Air France roulette looks almost as unappealing as the Russian variety.
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