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Tuesday, 18 June, 2002, 14:44 GMT 15:44 UK
Q&A: Europe's striking air workers
Travellers are facing widespread chaos as air traffic control workers in France, Portugal, Italy, Greece and Hungary go on strike. BBC News Online takes a closer look at the troubles facing the sector.

Why are the air traffic control workers protesting?

The workers are striking in protest against the European Commission's proposal to create a single EU airspace.

Free airspace would mean that each member country's sky area is open to aircraft from other member countries.

That "single sky" could then be co-ordinated centrally, operating with standard technical and safety standards.

But the scheme's opponents fear that it will lead to widespread job cuts and chaos during the changeover.

How is the airspace organised now?

The existing system of European airspace is extremely fragmented.

The present system dates back to the 1960s and is patched together from even older national systems.

It divides up European airspace into small, inefficient blocks which use a variety of different air traffic control technologies.

Different countries can ban certain aircraft from their airspace in order to make way for military procedures or to ensure the dominance of national carriers.

Most people admit that, if the system of airspace could be recreated, it would be very different from the current jumble.

Why does the jumble need to be sorted out?

The Commission says that crisis point will be reached unless air traffic control capacity improvements are introduced quickly.

The system is already buckling under the strain, with one in every four European flights delayed during 2001.

Air traffic is projected to increase by about 4% a year for the next 15 years.

It is estimated that air traffic control capacity must double during this time to accommodate the anticipated increase in traffic.

The EU says about 350,000 aircraft flight hours a year are wasted due to inefficient air traffic management and airport delays.

How does the Commission think a single skies arrangement would work better?

The Commission argues that there are three key problems with the existing system:

  • inefficient use of airspace constrains Europe's economic growth
  • safety is jeopardised
  • efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from air transport are undermined.

    The Commission says single skies will result in better use of congested airports, fewer delays and reduced pollution.

    And it says that, by enabling airlines to take direct routes, the carriers will save one billion euros a year on control charges for air navigation.

    The Commission is pressing ahead with its proposals in consultation with controllers, airports and airlines and is hoping to introduce the new system by 2004.

    So what's the problem?

    "National governments and air traffic service providers will be encouraged to team up to create a smaller number of larger, more efficient, blocks of managed airspace," said Loyola de Palacio.

    That, for many of the workers, is the trouble.

    The bottom line for workers is that efficiency, while a good thing from the point of view of customers and airlines, means less jobs.

    Some parties are also concerned that, without limiting competition from budget airlines and large established carriers, smaller national airlines will be forced out of business.

    There is also concern over whether national air traffic control systems will be privatised, and the safety issues that ensue.

    A final source of objection is the military. Many countries want to be able to allocate their airspace to military training flights as and when they want to.

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