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Strike brings Europe flights chaos

Going nowhere ... a lone passenger waits at Roissy airport in Paris  

PARIS, France -- Hundreds of flights were cancelled and travellers stranded on Wednesday as a strike led by French air traffic controllers brought chaos across Europe.

Airlines cancelled most flights to and from France because of massive protests there against the European Union's "single sky" plan, which will bring all controllers under a Europe-wide command. (More)

Greek controllers joined in late in the morning followed by their Italian, Portuguese, Swiss and Hungarian colleagues.

Fewer than 10 percent of Air France's short and medium-haul flights took off during the 16 hours of the French strike on Wednesday, though the company said it aimed to fly 90 percent of long haul flights.

The skies over Paris' Orly Airport were quiet, CNN's Diana Muriel reported. Of 660 timetabled daily flights at Orly, only 77 were functioning, while at Roissy airport as few as 200 out of 1,500 flights were maintained, France's DGAC aviation regulator said.

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Germany's Lufthansa airlines cancelled 130 of its 140 flights to and from France, and British Airways was operating only four of its usual 126 flights into France.

Muriel reported that both London Heathrow and Frankfurt airports were badly hit. She added that the effects of the disruption would be felt for a few days as many planes and crews were simply in the wrong place.

In Italy, where controllers held a strike for one hour, from 3 to 4 p.m. (1300 to 1400 GMT), 9,500 people were unable to travel on scheduled flights after Alitalia cancelled 50 of its 800 daily connections.

Hundreds of holidaymakers were left stranded overnight in airport lounges in Greece, where an air traffic official said there had been a 100 percent response to the strike call.

"Its terrible. I have been here for 12 hours," Werner Schmidt, stranded at Athens airport, told Reuters.

The disruption was worsened by strikes by Greek airline and transport workers over pensions.

British Airways, which relies heavily on French airspace for European journeys, cancelled not only all but four of its French flights, but also services to Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg.

Spain is a leading holiday destination for both the UK and Germany and a 24-hour public service strike there on Thursday was certain to extend the chaos. (Spanish strike)

Supporters of the "single sky" initiative, debated by European transport ministers on Monday, say having air zones based on the busiest routes will be more efficient and allow air traffic control to be adapted safely for increasing traffic.

Air traffic control
The "single-skies" plan would bring air-traffic control under unified supervision  

Air traffic control unions say they fear the EU plan could force them to compete for contracts and lead to privatisation of their services.

"We are defending a system that's not failed in 40 years," Christian Chardon, national secretary of the ATC wing of France's CFDT union told Reuters.

The strike added to the worries of European airlines facing higher insurance and security costs and lower ticket revenues after the September 11 hijacked airliner attacks.

Air France shares dropped 1.9 percent by 1545 GMT, and BA's shares were also 1.9 percent lower.

French unions' 17-hour strike was due to end at 11.00 p.m. on Wednesday (2100 GMT). The strike lasted five hours in Greece, two hours in Hungary and one in Italy.

Italian controllers said they would mount a series of further, lengthening stoppages in what threatens to be a summer of discontent across Europe.

Many exhausted passengers had little choice but to wait out the strike to get to their destination. "I've got to wait 32 hours to get back to Birmingham," said John Carroll, who was traveling to the central England city when he got stranded at Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris.

"I just came back from Japan at 4 o'clock this morning," he told The Associated Press.

Manfred Winkler, spokesman for the new national carrier Swiss Air Lines, told AP mothan 2,300 of its passengers were affected by the cancellation of 50 Swiss flights to and from France.

Portugal's national airline TAP said 52 of its flights would be affected by the strike. Most Portuguese airports came to a standstill for four hours.

"It is downright absurd that ... air traffic controllers call a strike for today to protest against open European skies and come out in favour of maintaining fragmented structures," Chief Executive Juergen Weber told the Lufthansa annual shareholder meeting in Cologne.

"People had largely been warned yesterday that their flights would be cancelled, so most haven't made pointless journeys to airports," said a spokeswoman for Paris airport operator ADP.

In Germany, meanwhile, construction workers have expanded their first strike in post-war history to 11 of the country's 16 states. (Full story)


• Summer of discontent for travel
June 18, 2002
• Airlines cut flights as strike bites
December 6, 2001
• Italy hit by strikes
July 6, 2001
• Plane passengers hit by strike
December 5, 2001

• The European Union

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