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Cancellations and compensation: How French strikes affect European flights

Emma Pearson
Emma Pearson - [email protected]
Cancellations and compensation: How French strikes affect European flights
French air traffic controllers are responsible for thousands of 'overflights' each day, as well as those taking off an landing in France. Photo by PASCAL GUYOT / AFP

More than 10 million airline passengers were hit by strikes and cancellations due to recent French air traffic control strikes - around half of them on flights that were only passing over France. Here's how this could affect you and your rights to refunds or compensation.


French strikes don't just affect France - particularly when it comes to air travel.

As a cursory glance at the map will show you, France is geographically pretty central to Europe, so many flights within the continent pass over French airspace - in fact roughly half of the flights in French airspace are only passing through, known as 'overflights'.

French air traffic controllers can be a fairly militant lot - and if they are on strike your flight could be affected even if you're not going to or from France.

European air traffic control body Eurocontrol recently published research examining the impact of French strikes over the past month - air traffic controllers have been taking part in long-running strikes in protest at president Emmanuel Macron's controversial pension reform.

The data shows that between March 1st and April 9th, more than 10 million passengers were hit with either delays or cancellations as a result of strikes, with an average of 64,000 passengers a day impacted.

On an average day, 3,300 flights take off or land in France (of which 800 are domestic flights) and 3,700 pass through French airspace - and are therefore affected if French air traffic controllers go on strike. 

Air traffic controllers are required to give notice if they intend to strike, the French Direction Générale de l'aviation civile (DGAC) then calculates how many workers will be on strike and orders airline to cancel a certain percentage of their flights. It is up to airlines which flights they cancel, and most prioritise long-haul flights and cancel the short-haul ones in order to try and minimise disruption to passengers. 


In a recent petition to the EU to change the rules on minimum strike cover, the Irish budget airline Ryanair claims that disruption disproportionately falls on overflights, saying: "It is unacceptable that France uses Minimum Service Legislation to protect French fights during these repeated ATC strikes, while overflights, none of which are operating to/from France, suffer all these cancellations."


However data from Eurocontrol doesn't suggest a disproportionate effect on overflights, with the March 1st to April 9th data showing that 14 percent of flights that took off or landed in France (including domestic flights) were impacted by strikes while 16 percent of overflights were affected. 

Eurocontrol added, however, that their data on strike-related flight cancellations does not include flights cancelled more than three days in advance of the scheduled departure.

There are also knock-on effects - such as planes ending up in the wrong place due to cancellations - that can force airlines to delay or cancel flights even once industrial action is ended. 


Who is worst affected?

As you would expect, the country most affected by the industrial action was France, with 30 percent of flights delayed during the report period and daily cancellations up 158 percent on a normal day.

Neighbouring Spain saw 15 percent of its departures delayed, the vast majority of which were overflights, and cancellations rise by 63 percent, while the UK, Italy and Germany saw between 6 and 8 percent of departures disrupted, again, mostly overflights.

Graphic: Eurocontrol's report on flight disruption between March 1st and April 9th, 2023

What does Ryanair want?

In terms of numbers of delayed flights, Ryanair suffered the worst disruption during this one-month period that the report covers, with 332 departures delayed due to French strikes, representing 13 percent of its total flights. French airline Air France suffered the highest percentage of delays with 31 percent of departures delayed, or 277 flights. 

Graphic from Eurocontrol's report into the impact of French air traffic control strikes between March 1st and April 9th, 2023

Ryanair has now launched a petition to the EU to change the rules on air traffic control flights, saying that in the whole of 2023 it has been forced to cancel 3,350 flights due to strikes, the majority of which were overflights - if you're a Ryanair customer, you might have already received a message asking you to sign it.


In France, strikes over pension reform began on January 19th and have continued sporadically since, with 12 one-day strikes that have seen high levels of disruption and further ongoing actions from single unions like air traffic controllers. 

The budget airline believes that flight cancellations discriminate against overflights and is calling on European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen to change the rules, forcing France to apply Minimum Service rules to overflights as well as French departures/arrivals and to allow European air traffic controllers to operate in French airspace if there is a strike.


“People can understand if you’re travelling to France and there is a strike, 'fine, I could be impacted,'” Neal McMahon, the airline’s director of operations, told reporters.

“But somebody going from Valencia to Milan won’t be able to understand that it was delayed or potentially cancelled because the French are on strike. It’s impossible for consumers to understand that and it’s not fair,” he added.

What are my rights to a refund?

Even if the EU does agree to Ryanair's proposals, which is far from certain, it will take time to implement, so for the moment at least overflights are likely to continue to be affected by French strikes.

So if you are affected by a delay or cancellation to an overflight, what are your rights to a refund?

In terms of compensation, it makes little different whether your flight is to/from France or simply over it, as EU compensation rules apply to all flights that either arrive at or depart from an airport in the EU/Schengen zone, or are operated by an EU-registered carrier.

Find full details on your rights and how to claim refunds HERE.

You can check the latest on French strike action at The Local France's strike section HERE.



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