Strike could shut down Belgian airspace from Thursday

Strike could shut down Belgian airspace from Thursday
An Easyjet aeroplane flying near Brussels Airport in Zaventem. Credit: Belga / Eric Lalmand

Staff at air traffic controller Skeyes have threatened to strike from Thursday onwards which could see almost the entire airspace over Belgium being shut down until a solution between management and unions has been found.

In September, the three unions at air traffic controller Skeyes submitted a strike notice due to dissatisfaction with the staff scheduling mechanism. The notice will end on Thursday 5 October, and if no solutions have been found by then, actions and strikes may proceed, which could see almost all of Belgian airspace being closed off, and aeroplanes being stuck on the ground.

Unions have argued that the work-life balance of air traffic controllers is under pressure. An agreement was reached with Skeyes in 2019 to introduce a new scheduling mechanism, but due to the pandemic, only a trial period came into force, and then the agreement expired early this year.

Skeyes finally agreed to adjust the mechanism, and a working group was set up for this purpose. However, according to the union ACV Transcom, it has become clear in recent months that the management was "abusing the working group and continuing to run around in circles without really addressing the issue, thus only stalling for time."

Aeroplanes almost colliding

The current agreement has resulted in timetables being published very late, giving controllers just two weeks' notice. Controllers are also having to work more hours with less rest time due to ongoing staff shortages following the pandemic.

One air traffic controller told Het Laatste Nieuws that such practices endanger air traffic, and thus passengers on aeroplanes, as controllers start their shifts tired and are at risk of making mistakes. "In our job, you always have to be attentive, but this is not the case because of the little rest time," he noted.

The number of incidents, including aircraft flying closer together than allowed, has risen recently. "Sometimes we feel that something serious must happen before people listen to our grievances. But by then it is too late, of course."

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Threats and provocation

The staff shortages have also resulted in problems regarding night shifts. Employees who work regular nights are entitled to a reduction in working hours on an annual basis as compensation. But those nights are scheduled without consultation, resulting in some air traffic controllers having "underperformed" by a few nights.

Now, they are suddenly being informed they have to work a large number of additional hours by the end of the year. Staff are reportedly also being threatened and provoked as part of this system.

A reconciliation meeting with the unions and management took place on Monday afternoon, but it is not yet clear whether discussions have advanced.

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