France's strike-prone and ill-equipped air traffic controllers cause 'third of delays over Europe', finds report

Henry Samuel
French air traffic controllers responsible for third of EU aviation delays finds report, due to strikes and outdated equipment - AFP

France’s strike-prone and ill-equipped air traffic controllers are responsible for a third of all delays in the skies over Europe, a senate report concluded yesterday.

The delays are costing airlines €300 million (£263m) per year it found.

The damning report by the senate’s finance committee came after weeks of delays due to industrial action by Gallic controllers, forcing some planes to skirt the country to shorten flight times.

According to the report, between 2004 and 2016, France’s air traffic controllers were on strike 254 days. That placed them far ahead of second-placed Greece, on only 46 days of stoppages. In third place came Italy 37 with Germany in fourth, according to the report seen by Le Parisien.

"Every day of a strike in France has a much bigger impact on European traffic than (strikes) in other European countries", the report's author, senator Vincent Capo-Canellas, noted after a six months study of the sector.

The report put the French traffic controllers’ penchant for strikes to the fact that they were quick to down tools both when unhappy with job conditions but also out of support for fellow state sector workers.

Air traffic controllers have joined recent public sector strikes along with rail workers, school and hospital staff and civil servants Credit: ALAIN JOCARD/AFP

The main union, UASC-CGT, said the comparison was unfair. “Switzerland posts less strike days but it also has far less controllers and much less traffic over there,” it said.

As well as frequent strikes, France is also in pole position for delays, linked to outdated equipment, the report said. "Our country is responsible for 33 percent of delays due to air traffic control in Europe," said Mr Capo-Canellas.

"In France, the control equipment is outdated,” he said, adding that maintenance costs come to €136 million euros per year.

Despite having pumped more than €2 billion into modernising its air traffic equipment since 2011, the senator lamented: “We are way behind our neighbours.”

The report warned that the situation risked getting worse given that the 4,000 French air traffic controllers have to cope with a sharp increase in traffic each year.

They controlled more than 3.1 million flights in 2017, up four percent from 2016 and 8.6 percent from 2015.

The senate saw no immediate prospect of improvement.

All hopes are pinned on the deployment of a new computer system, whose budget has exploded. Due to be installed in 2015, it is now only expected to be up and running by 2022-3. 

On a more positive note, the report found that while slow, even “obsolete”, the system was not actually unsafe and remarkably “resilient”. It also noted that France’s air traffic control school is renowned the world over. ends