Easter holidays to popular European destinations including Amsterdam, Nice and Prague are at risk for thousands of Britons as strikes by French air traffic controllers and Heathrow security staff forced the cancellation of scores of flights.
More than 1,400 Heathrow security officers who are members of the Unite union are set to walk out from 31 March to 9 April over pay, while French air traffic controllers are expected to continue striking until 8 April, in the latest phase of protest against President Macron’s controversial pension reforms.
Heathrow has already given British Airways a mandate to cancel 300 flights over the 10-day strike period, equating to 16 a day, or 5 per cent of its overall schedule. Dates affected include the Good Friday bank holiday and Easter Sunday.
A combination of the French strikes and bad weather forced BA to cancel 50 short-haul trips on Thursday alone, with flights to and from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Amsterdam, Nice, Zurich, Hamburg and Prague all affected.
A spokesperson for BA said: “Like other airlines, due to French air traffic control industrial action and forecasted bad weather, we’ve made a small number of schedule adjustments to some of our flights.
“This is beyond our control and we’re sorry for any disruption to our customers’ travel plans. We’re in contact with our customers to inform them of their rights and offer them options including a full refund or rebooking onto an alternative flight.”
According to aviation analyst Cirium, between 31 March and 9 April inclusive, there are 1,242 flights scheduled to depart UK airports to France.
More broadly, a total of 16,375 flights are scheduled to depart UK airports for Europe over the same period, many of which could also be affected if they pass over French air space.
Describing the combination of strikes as “a huge worry to travellers this Easter”, Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, said that further disruption is “likely”.
He added: “Airlines should ensure they keep passengers informed of any potential changes to their bookings as result of strike action as early as possible, and must not fail in their legal responsibility to offer travellers a refund or the option to be rebooked if their flight is cancelled, including with other airlines if necessary.”
Ryanair was forced to cancel 230 flights last weekend due to disruption across the Channel, along with another 120 across Wednesday and Thursday this week.
The airline’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, said it was a “scandal” that the air traffic controller strikes blocked so many flights over France’s airspace, disrupting popular tourist journeys from Britain to Spain.
He said: “It is difficult to explain to passengers in the UK, Ireland and Spain that their flights are cancelled because of a few air traffic controllers in France walking out, even though their flight is not landing in France.”
Easyjet boss Johan Lundgren described the strikes as outside of the airline’s control and said they posed a “huge challenge”.
Speaking at the Airlines for Europe summit in Brussels, he said: “It is something we have to plan for, and we are doing our best to try to mitigate it, but of course it is very difficult. Sometimes you only get 24 hours’ notice.”
The air traffic control strikes are part of nationwide, mass action taking place in France in protest against President Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.
Despite being protected from the pension reforms – with a retirement age of 57 – air traffic controllers have walked out repeatedly in solidarity with other workers.
Ryanair claimed that so far this year, the strikes have delayed or cancelled flights of more than 1.4m passengers and the airline has petitioned the EU Commission and Ursula von der Leyen to allow controllers from other countries to manage flights passing though French air space.
Last minute talks between Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL) and Unite broke down on Thursday after HAL failed to improve on its offer.
Picket lines will be in place across the airport throughout the 10 days of continuous strike action, which ends at 11.59pm on Easter Sunday April 10.
The strikes involves security officers at Terminal Five, which is used exclusively by British Airways, and campus security guards who are responsible for checking all cargo that enters the airport.
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “Heathrow can afford to pay a decent pay rise to its workers.
“This is a wealthy company which is about to return to bumper profits. In recent years it’s approved an astronomical rise in salary for its chief executive and paid out dividends to shareholders worth billions.
“Yet somehow, Heathrow executives seem to think it’s acceptable to offer what amounts to a real-terms pay cut to its security guards and ground staff who are already on poverty pay.
“Unite has a laser-like focus on our members jobs, pay and conditions, the workforce at Heathrow Airport will receive the union’s unswerving support in this fight for a decent deal.”
In the three years before the pandemic, Unite said, Heathrow paid £2.1bn in dividends to shareholders in Spain and Qatar who control the airport’s parent company.
Between 2020 and 2021, the annual salary of chief executive John Holland-Kaye rose from £800,000 to £1.5m – up 88 per cent – the union said, while Heathrow workers have faced an average fall in pay of 24 per cent since 2017.
Heathrow said it has offered staff a 10 per cent pay increase and a lump sum payment of £1,150, which has been on the table since January, on top of a 4 per cent pay rise and a £2,000 payment last year.
A Heathrow spokesperson said the airport will deploy 1,000 additional staff and the entire management team to terminals.
Heathrow said that, as at any busy time, it may take a little longer than usual to get through security.
“Passengers can help us ensure they get the best start to their journeys by checking their flight status with their airline before travelling to the airport, arriving at Heathrow no earlier than two hours before short haul flights and three hours before long haul flights and by being ready for security with their compliant liquids and electronics out of their hand luggage,” it said in a statement.