A passenger walks past vacant check in desks at Orly airport, west of Paris, France, during a strike by French air traffic controllers, Tuesday, June 11, 2013. Airlines have slashed flights in France as a strike by air traffic controllers fearful of a plan to unify European skies went into full force Tuesday. France's main airports have cut their flight timetables in half to cope with a three-day strike by air traffic controllers.(AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)
PARIS - A strike by air traffic controllers forced cancellations of more than 60 per cent of flights around France and disrupted travel elsewhere in Europe on Wednesday, as workers protested a plan to simplify the continent's patchwork airspace.
Over 2,000 flights were cancelled in France as more workers joined the second day of the strike, according to the civil aviation authority. The walkout started Tuesday and is scheduled to end by Thursday.
The umbrella union for air traffic controllers said 11 countries would take part. The biggest walkout was in France, but it had a ripple effect on other European countries.
Britain saw delays primarily related to the French strike — easyJet cancelled 66 flights going to France or passing through its airspace. Heathrow Airport, Europe's busiest, said that roughly two-thirds of its 66 daily flights to and from France had been cancelled.
Air traffic controllers are upset at an EU plan to consolidate the patchwork of air traffic control systems across the 27-country bloc under one authority. The plan wants to open up more duties to private enterprise, allow bidding on services like weather forecasting and navigation, and ease what European officials say is a looming capacity crunch.
The unions fear the plan will threaten jobs and passenger safety, and claim the EU is yielding to industry pressure to cut costs. They say it would hand more air traffic services to private companies.
About 27,000 flights a day now cross European airspace, for a total of over 9 million a year, and most are flying under air traffic management systems that were designed in the 1950s, said the European Commission, the EU's executive arm.
Air France warned passengers to delay all travel on short- or medium-distance flights until Friday or later.
It said in a statement that it is trying to maintain its long-haul flights, and that it hopes to gradually return to normal Thursday.
At Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport, red "cancelled" notices filled information screens Wednesday and stranded passengers crowded on benches to sleep.
Frenchman Denis Irinee spent the day trying to get home to Montpellier in southern France after vacationing in Asia.
"It's a huge mess," he said. "They promised us flights here and there, but they were all cancelled one after another, so in theory we will not have any flights to go home to Montpellier today."
Sohrab Monemi in Paris and Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.