PATIENCE PLEASE: Passengers wait for their flight at Nice International Airport on Tuesday during a strike by French air-traffic controllers. Picture: REUTERS
PATIENCE PLEASE: Passengers wait for their flight at Nice International Airport on Tuesday during a strike by French air-traffic controllers. Picture: REUTERS

TOULOUSE — Air-traffic controllers in 11 European Union (EU) countries will protest on Wednesday against plans to create a single airspace for the bloc, unions said on Tuesday.

French air traffic controllers started their three-day strike on Tuesday, which is projected to cut 1,800 flights.

Air France-KLM Group, easyJet and Deutsche Lufthansa were forced to reduce services in France on Tuesday and France’s air transport authority provided an estimate of 1,800 cancellations.

Air France declined to supply a number of lost flights, saying the situation was in flux.

Controllers in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Italy, Portugal and Slovakia would work to rule from Wednesday, Francois Ballestero of the European Transport Workers Federation, said on Tuesday. Other forms of industrial action including public information campaigns would take place in Austria, Britain, Bulgaria, Hungary and Latvia, he said.

Air France said on Tuesday it aimed to transport all long-haul passengers by reducing frequencies on key destinations such as New York, while travellers on flights in France or to Europe should try to postpone travel.

Lufthansa scrapped 171 flights on Tuesday that serve cities including Paris, Toulouse, Lyons and Marseilles.

Unions view the European Commission’s proposed "single airspace" as a threat to their bargaining power at a national level. Challenging national controllers in a bid to offer relief for carriers, EU regulators plan to request new powers to lower air-traffic charges and shorten flight routes in the bloc. The European Commission was to present the proposals in Brussels late on Tuesday.

The draft legislation would give the Brussels-based commission greater authority to enforce performance standards for air-traffic control organisations and would open up their support service, such as meteorology and data collection, to competition.

"The time has come to take decisive action on behalf of Europe’s airlines and their customers," EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas said. "We are putting performance targets where they belong — at the heart of the reform process. And we are setting the bar high."

The planned initiatives reflect impatience with vested national interests and a lack of competition that are preventing a more integrated aviation system in Europe, where air-traffic charges are about double the rate in the similarly sized US airspace.

The proposals need the support of EU governments and the European Parliament in a process that can take a year or more.

Inefficiencies caused by fragmentation add 42km to the distance of an average flight in Europe, imposing extra costs of almost ¤5bn a year, says the commission, the EU’s regulatory arm. Air-traffic control accounts for between 6% and 12% of the cost of a ticket, the commission notes.

The EU has sought for more than a decade to create a "single European sky" by eliminating surplus civilian air-traffic centres and reducing military no-fly zones.

The bloc has also pressed military authorities to open up air force exercise zones, governments to merge airspace, and controllers to use the same equipment.