The decision by several French air traffic control (ATC) unions to strike for 36 hours in early December was described as "incredible" by one airline official

The action, called to protest over the European Commission's (EC) single sky proposals, reinforces the conviction of many that state-owned ATC bodies, as opposed to their corporatised cousins, are in urgent need of reform, says Karl-Heinz Neumeister, Association of European Airlines secretary general.

The French unions appear to have jumped the gun, and broken a Europe-wide pact among labour unions to co-operate on the single sky issue. Their action seemed to be timed to irritate all sides, taking place just a week in advance of a consultation between the EC, unions and ATC representatives on the implications of single skies for employees and employers alike. The strikes also came as en route delays in Europe fell by 6.7% in November.

It has been a tough time for ATC providers, hit on the one hand by reduced demand and stung on the other by criticism from IATA for not freezing or lowering charges to help airlines out in their time of need. Eurocontrol responded by keeping rates at their 2001 level for the first quarter of 2002, and promised to review a further three-month freeze. Carriers will only gain a short-term cashflow benefit. "It is simply deferring the payment of the increase," says AEA's Neumeister.

However, the corporatised ATC providers are fighting back. Alexander ter Kuile, secretary general of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation, says in many cases airlines are either on the board of, or have input to the decision-making processes at many corporatised ATC providers. This transparency is designed to ensure they do not abuse their monopoly position and means carriers are "often part of the budget approval phase and approve the increase of charges," he explains. To then turn round and complain is unfair, he says.

In addition, as ATC providers work to the well-known cost recovery model, put in place in the 1940s, they also do not have any reserves to fund price cuts. "The [charging] system is designed for growth, but the tremendous downturn has exposed our sector to everything that is wrong with it," says ter Kuile.

Despite their demands over fees, airlines will not stop seeking to persuade ATC providers to continue their investment in expanding capacity because "it is proven they are normally 2-3 years behind demand", says Neumeister. One enhancement, which will start being phased in across 40 European states on 24 January, is the introduction of Reduced Vertical Separation Minima. This increases the number of flight levels in upper airspace boosting capacity by 20%, says Eurocontrol.

Source: Airline Business