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"More European Airport Strikes Are On the Way"

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

More European Airport Strikes Are On the Way 
By Katherine LaGrave
Condé Nast Traveler

Last Friday, striking ground workers at Berlin's Tegel and Schöenefeld airports 
led to the cancellation of nearly all flights in-and out-of the German capital, 
capping off Europe's worst week of travel disruptions in 2017: Finnair also 
canceled 104 flights on Friday because of a service staff strike, and air 
traffic controllers in France protested through the duration of last week, 
affecting more than 1,500 flights, according to Bloomberg. 

Yet the strikes, protests, delays, and cancellations are far from over. Ground 
staff at Berlin's airports on Monday morning began a 25-hour strike, and 
Ver.di, a large German trade union, has warned more are on the way. Italian 
airport employees have said they will walk out on March 20 and April 21, and 
some Alitalia employees have planned a 24-hour strike for April 5, while 
Finnish airport workers have other strike dates in the works for the end of 
March. French air traffic controllers-the worst offenders in Europe when it 
comes to striking-set a record in 2016 for number of days affected, and seem to 
be continuing the pattern in 2017 due to their long-running dispute with the 
government over pensions, pay, and job security. 

European airports and unions are not alone in their strikes, either: On 
November 29 of last year, as Traveler's Barbara Peterson and Sebastian Modak 
previously reported, baggage handlers, aircraft cleaning crews, and hundreds of 
other airport contract workers walked off the job at Chicago O'Hare and 
protested outside of the terminal buildings. Workers at Reagan National Airport 
outside Washington, D.C., Newark Liberty Airport, Boston Logan, and other major 
U.S. airports also staged protests. (No flights were canceled.) But when it 
comes to strikes, why are they more frequent at European airports-and on 
European airlines? 

Labor laws, for one. In France, for example, union protections make it 
difficult for companies to fire workers, enabling them to repeatedly strike 
without consequence. Comparably, in the U.S., union memberships have shrunk 
steadily in the past 50 years, and today, only 10.7 percent of wage and salary 
workers in the U.S. are in unions, making it difficult for many to strike 
without fear of being fired. New Zealand, Germany, Australia, and France have 
also turned their air traffic control over to independent or nonprofit 
corporations, and it is not illegal-as it is in the U.S.-for controllers to 
walk off the job. It's much of the same story for U.S. airlines, who are bound 
by the Railway Labor Act: In order to even be allowed to strike, airline 
employees must get the National Mediation Board (NMB), responsible for airline 
labor negotiations, to grant unions the right. Given the disruption a strike 
can have on an airline's pocket change, the NMB is reluctant to do so. (The 
last approved strike was for Spirit pilots in 2010, after more than three years 
of back-and-forth.) 

Unfortunately, even though U.S. and European airlines have stipulations in 
place for flight cancellations, labor strikes fall under "extraordinary 
circumstances," meaning carriers are not entitled to offer travelers 
compensation-oftentimes, their obligation ends at getting you to your 
destination as soon as possible. Traveling to Europe in the coming months? If 
you can, look to avoid airports and airlines with active labor 
disputes-Lufthansa pilots and British Airways flight crew are two recent 
examples-or look into travel insurance that covers cancellations due to 
strikes. If a strike happens while you're at a destination, hop on the phone 
for the fastest service, look to an airline's alliance partners, or wait it 
out-European strikes typically only last for a few days.
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