Flight chaos as French controllers strike over EU airspace plan

Hundreds of flights in France were cancelled Tuesday as air traffic controllers kicked off a three-day strike against EU plans to create a single European airspace.

Controllers across the continent are due to stage various protests such as working to rule on Wednesday against what the European Transport Workers' Federation calls "a never-ending process of liberalisation, deregulation and cost cutting."

The day of action, which will involve staff in 11 countries, centres around a decade-long attempt to create a single EU airspace that controllers fear will cut jobs and affect work conditions.

France has been hit by two separate actions. Tuesday's strike was called by one of the controllers' main unions and will last three days, while other unions will join Wednesday's Europe-wide movement only.

Some 1,800 flights were cancelled Tuesday -- just under a quarter of the daily average -- after authorities asked airlines to cut some flights in advance to avoid mayhem on the day.

The situation is "on the whole quite calm in airports", said a spokesman for the Directorate General for Civil Aviation, France's aviation authority.

But Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair blasted the work stoppage, saying passengers were being "taken hostage" and calling on the European Commission to put an end to controllers' strikes after it cancelled more than 100 flights.

Air France, meanwhile, said it expected all long-haul flights from Paris would go ahead, but did not exclude "last-minute delays and cancellations."

The work stoppage is just one of the planned strikes in France this week, with railway workers due to stop work from Wednesday evening until Friday morning, and postal service employees expected to strike Thursday.

The air traffic controllers' main union, the SNCTA, called the three-day strike to denounce "the direct consequences on national policies of European constraints" on the sector.

Other unions that also represent controllers are planning to join Wednesday's protest movement to protest mainly against the "Single European Sky", which aims to bring management of European airspace under EU control.

Fragmented country-by-country air control is estimated to bring extra costs of close to five billion euros ($6.6 billion) a year to airlines and passengers in Europe.

It adds 42 kilometres to the distance of an average flight as controllers are not able to manage more than a certain amount of flights at the same time, thus also harming the environment and causing delays.

By way of comparison, the United States controls the same amount of airspace with more traffic at almost half the cost.

The European Commission wants to redesign the EU's 27 national airspaces into just nine bigger sectors, saying a "single" European sky would improve safety ten-fold, slash pollution by 10 percent and reduce costs by 50 percent.

It will put forward proposals later Tuesday to speed up the reform, amid strong resistance from unions.

"The problem doesn't lie in the 'single sky' regulations that aim to harmonise air traffic management at a European level, we're for that," said Olivier Joffrin of the USAC-CGT, one of the unions involved in Wednesday's strike.

"What we don't accept is that the Commission use this to privatise and liberalise some activities."