IFATCA is the global voice of Air Traffic Controllers. It furthers air traffic safety, influences the sustainable evolution of aviation, and embraces all members of its community. The apolitical federation provides guidance, representation, training, and other services to advance the status and professionalism of air traffic control. It collaborates with other international organisations to achieve mutual goals. IFATCA is not a Trade Union.
To enhance air traffic safety, to promote the air traffic control profession, and to shape the future of air traffic management.
IFATCA welcomes the debate on the right to strike and wishes to provide a sensible approach to some elements brought to the attention of the highest level of decision-makers, the aviation authorities and, eventually, the (travelling) public.
While some of our members combine the statute of Professional Association and Trade Union at a local level, IFATCA represents the professional and technical interests, including the well-being of 43 Air Traffic Controllers’ Associations in Europe. Nevertheless, not all Air Traffic Controllers are subject to national laws and/or their facilities’ operations are purely concerning overflights. These elements shall be considered when establishing industrial action restrictions to not deprive them of the basic rights recognised by ILO and EU authorities.
IFATCA feels responsible for advising all parties on any restrictions impacting either Safety, the well-being and/or the basic rights and obligations of Air Traffic Controllers.
In April 2023, EUROCONTROL published a study highlighting the impact of strikes on the aviation sector in Europe.
In May 2023 a petition of one of the largest intra-European carriers was delivered to the president of the European Commission Ms. Ursula von der Leyen, which created a debate at a political and public level to restrict and organise the right of strike across the European Union, notwithstanding that it is a recognised national matter.
In October 2023, the Network Manager of EUROCONTROL published a study on the "Impact of ATM related strikes on the European ATM Network".
In the study, EUROCONTROL suggests eight different, possible, scenarios for mitigation measures and analysis, to minimise the impact of ATM related strikes on the European ATM network, including Scenario #3 “USE OF MILITARY ATCOs AS COMPLEMENT TO CIVIL ATCOs.”
IFATCA will argue that Scenario #3 (Military take-over in case of a strike) in the EUROCONTROL study “Impact of ATM related strikes on the European ATM network” is not only dangerous, against the objectives of the EUROCONTROL Agency but also illegal in front of the ILO rules and conventions signed by all European States, including EUROCONTROL.
The Right to Strike
Strikes are an integral part of a healthy social dialogue system which is governed by rules and regulations established by national authorities. Strikes in the Aviation sector could lead to a source of disruption of Air Traffic Control services.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) has ruled on the Freedom of Association and lengthily describes the rights and obligations in case of a strike. The ILO recognizes that “Strikes are by nature disruptive and costly; strike action also calls for a significant sacrifice from those workers who choose to exercise it as a last resort tool and means of pressure on the employer to redress any perceived injustices”.
Lately, mainly due to recurrent actions in France for unrelated aviation matters, this topic has been at the forefront of airlines, some governments, and the European Commission (EC) due to the impacts local actions have (had) on the European Network.
The European ATM network is an infrastructure. The ATM infrastructure consists of humans and machines, and it does not follow market principles.
The human part of the infrastructure is, among others, mainly Air Traffic Controllers – ATCOs. (Approximately 17,000 in Europe). ATCOs are selected, highly skilled, specialised and licensed professionals, employed by Air Navigations Service Providers (ANSPs). These Air Navigation Service Providers can be private companies, government-owned entities or international agencies. They provide safe, continuous and efficient air traffic control services mainly to civilian and commercial air traffic in civilian airspace. Some of them provide integrated civil-military services, however, most European countries have a dedicated workforce of military air traffic controllers who control specific military missions in military airspace, while some other European countries do not have any permanent military airspace and therefore do not have any military air traffic control personnel or other military personnel that would be in any way similar to civil ATCOs.
Basic human rights and EU regulations provide the right to strike to all the employees of the private sector. Some restrictions apply to the public sector. Each country regulates the right to strike according to its national law.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) states: “The right to strike is one of the essential means through which workers and their organizations may promote and defend their economic and social interests”. Furthermore, “The right to strike is an intrinsic corollary to the right to organize protected by Convention No. 87”.
“Regarding various types of strike action denied to workers (wild-cat strikes, tools-down, go-slow, working to rule and sit-down strikes), the (ILO) Committee considers that these restrictions may be justified only if the strike ceases to be peaceful”.
Airlines and EU institutions are contemplating the possibility of curtailing the basic human rights and EU legislations for a particular workforce, the European Civil Air Traffic Controllers.
EUROCONTROL proposes measures on how to circumvent the effects of strikes in their recent study, although EUROCONTROL is recognising that “the right to strike is a fundamental right enshrined in the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights”.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) describes the various aspects of a strike and “the possible exclusions from the right to strike: public servants; essential services; minimum service; disputes over rights”. Its reasonings can be found in Chapter 5 of the Labour Legislation Guidelines.
In its report, the Committee of Freedom of Association writes in 2000: “[…] essential services in the strict sense of the term (the interruption of which could endanger the life, safety or health of the whole or part of the population), or in situations of acute national crisis”.
Further, “The use of the military and requisitioning orders to break a strike over occupational claims, unless these actions aim at maintaining essential services in circumstances of the utmost gravity, constitute a serious violation of freedom of association”.
The question remains: Do the social and economic impacts of an Air Traffic Control strike (as experienced in the last decades) qualify to endanger the life, safety or health of the whole or a part of the population and call for minimum services beyond ensuring the guaranteed and safe operations of State, hospital and emergency flights without emptying the basic right of strike, especially with “the use of military ATCOs as complement to civil ATCOs”?
A historical perspective shall also be included in the study evaluation with the objective of sharpening one’s vision of the present, not the past.
In 1973 over Nantes, France, two civil airliners collided while being controlled by military controllers who were ordered to replace French ATCOs who were on strike (BEA Report in French / English). 68 people lost their lives. In 1982, the French Conseil d'Etat, the country's most supreme jurisdiction, ruled that the military air traffic control in place was fully responsible for the accident (Décisions Conseil d'etat nrs 26 892 and 27 066 of 7 July 1982)
In 1992 in Strasbourg, France, one aircraft collided with terrain, when military ATCOs represented the controlling unit. The military radar equipment had limitations for the ATCO to provide a safe and precise vectored approach to the pilots. The ATCO phraseology and instructions were based on a very short training phase, years before the accident. 87 people lost their lives. See the BEA report on this accident for more details.
IFATCA is more than highly concerned about the proposed Scenario #3 – “USE OF MILITARY ATCOs AS COMPLEMENT TO CIVIL ATCOs”.
EUROCONTROL has, in collaboration with the European Union Airspace Safety Agency (EASA), established the basis for the European license requirements. In short, a holder of a European ATCO license is subject to different regulations which includes medical fitness, competency and currency requirements as well as a minimum of theoretical and practical checks per year. All licenses within the ATM system are described in the EU Regulations which shall be followed by EUROCONTROL and EASA. The European Commission Regulation 2015/340 describes in detail, the requirements to become a licensed ATCO (see the extract below).
Meanwhile, the EUROCONTROL report suggests that the current EU Regulation on ATCO licenses provides the possibility to extend these requirements to the military ATCOs.
To bring this proposal into perspective, should this scenario be prepared in the right manner, it would require training, licensing, continuation training and refresher training for a sufficient number of military ATCOs – for specific units with sufficient numbers of military ATCOs being available.
IFATCA fails to understand why EUROCONTROL has, without proper disclaimers, brought this possibility forward to be included in an official study. IFATCA has thus explored different perspectives:
IFATCA believes these regulatory, economic, legal and historical arguments are clear enough to not propose this scenario describing the use of military ATCOs as a complement to civil ATCOs.
Besides the perspectives analysed, IFATCA also has multiple policies, with many of them being in line with the ICAO policies and regulations, and which present the best possible ‘solution’ to a ‘problem’ while trying to achieve the highest level of a professional environment with the main goal of air traffic safety.
An IFATCA policy on the use of unqualified personnel (see Annex A) has been written as a result of events in different countries, where certified personnel were forced to leave, and were replaced by unqualified personnel. Similar occurrences have also happened recently within the EUROCONTROL area, as unqualified personnel replaced certified ATCOs by force in Albania in 2020. In Spain, in 2010, the military was ordered to supervise civil ATCOs’ return to work following an action over overtime hours. The use of the military in ATC to reduce the impacts of strikes has been happening in Europe.
These occurrences are jeopardising the safety of European aviation and of the European public.
EUROCONTROL has, in collaboration with EASA, established the basis for the European license requirements. IFATCA feels responsible to advise all parties of any restrictions impacting either safety, the well-being and/or the basic rights and obligations of Air Traffic Controllers.
IFATCA is deeply concerned that EUROCONTROL, in its publication “Impact of ATM related strikes on the European ATM network”, does relay a proposal (Scenario #3) for the use of military ATCOs to complement civil ACTOs to minimise the impact on the European network in case of any industrial action.
Such a proposal, based on regulatory restrictions, economic impact, ILO judgements and historical events, will jeopardise the stability of the ATM infrastructure and aviation safety. It will bring an unnecessary risk to passengers, to the general public and to airspace users.
It seems more than incoherent for an organization responsible for the safety of the European Network, to include such a proposal in a professional study and to promote it without further, yet necessary, disclaimers, historical references, legal and detailed impacts.
IFATCA is more than extremely concerned with the EUROCONTROL proposal of Scenario #3: “USE OF MILITARY ATCOs AS COMPLEMENT TO CIVIL ATCOs”.
IFATCA cannot consider option #3 as a potential scenario in any instances related to industrial action.
Extract of European Commission Regulation 2015/340 on the requirements to become a licensed ATCO:
“Air traffic controllers and persons and organizations involved in their training, testing, checking and medical examination and assessment must comply with the relevant essential requirements set out in Annex V.b to Regulation (EC) No 216/2008. In particular, they are to be certified or licensed once they have demonstrated compliance with the essential requirements”.
“The European license has proved to be an effective way of recognizing and certifying the competence of air traffic controllers, who as a profession play a unique role in the operation of safe air traffic control”.
“To ensure the highest level of safety, uniform requirements for the training, qualifications and competence of air traffic controllers should therefore be introduced”.
“Air traffic controllers employed by air navigation service providers providing air traffic services in the airspace of the territory to which the Treaty applies and having their principal place of operations and their registered office, if any, located outside the territory subject to the provisions of the Treaty, shall be deemed to have been licensed in accordance with paragraph 1, where they meet both of the following conditions:
- they hold an air traffic controller license issued by a third country in accordance with Annex 1 to the Chicago Convention;
- they have demonstrated to the competent authority referred to in Article 6 that they have received training and successfully passed examinations and assessments equivalent to those required by Part ATCO, Subpart D, Sections 1-4, set out in Annex I.
The tasks and functions assigned to the air traffic controllers referred to in the first subparagraph shall not exceed the privileges of the license issued by the third country”.
Details on Unit Endorsements
Furthermore, the license system is built to be relevant to each applicable unit – the details are described in Regulation 2015/340, Annex 1, Subpart B: ATCO.B.005 Air traffic controller license, ATCO.B.010 Air traffic controller ratings and ATCO.B.015 Rating endorsements.
ATCO.B.020 Unit endorsements
(a) The unit endorsement shall authorize the license holder to provide air traffic control services for a specific sector, group of sectors and/or working positions under the responsibility of an air traffic services unit.
(b) Applicants for a unit endorsement shall have successfully completed a unit endorsement course in accordance with the requirements set out in Part ATCO, Subpart D, Section 3 (Unit Training requirements).
(c) Applicants for a unit endorsement following an exchange of a license referred to in ATCO.A.010 shall, in addition to the requirements set out in point (b), meet the requirements of ATCO.D.060(f).
ATCO.D.060 Unit endorsement course
(a) A unit endorsement course shall be the combination of the relevant unit training phases for the issue or renewal of a unit endorsement in the licence. Each course shall contain:
(1) a transitional training phase;
(2) an on-the-job training phase.
IFATCA POLICY on the Use of Unqualified Personnel
“For the purpose of guaranteeing safety, ATCOs shall not be replaced by personnel who do not hold ATC licences in accordance with ICAO Annex 1, with the ratings, recency and competency appropriate to the duties that they are expected to undertake”.
The functions which are contained within ICAO Annex 1, as being ATC functions shall not be added to the work responsibilities for unlicensed personnel”.
“All Air Traffic Controllers must hold air traffic control ratings appropriate to the duties they are undertaking”.
“In the event of an incident, caused totally or in part by the use of unqualified personnel, primary responsibility must lie with the person or the authority responsible for allocating the unqualified staff to the task undertaken”