Is It Wrong For ATC To Go On Strike Following An Airport Terrorist Attack?

Filed Under: Brussels, Unions

The horribly tragic Brussels terror attacks happened on March 22, which caused Brussels Airport to close for well over a week. A part of the check-in hall was blown up and many people lost their lives, so they had to shut down the airport while they regrouped and cleaned up the wreckage. During the closure period, Brussels Airlines regional flights operated from nearby airports, while Brussels Airlines longhaul flights operated out of Frankfurt Airport.

Brussels Airlines A330

Brussels Airport finally reopened on April 3, though only with very limited capacity — the first day just a few flights operated, and progressively more flights have been operating every day since then.

Well, at least up until today. Brussels Airport was shut down again today… due to industrial action by the Belgium air traffic controllers. Per CNBC:

Brussels airport was closed on Tuesday and the nearby airport in Charleroi only accepted landing aircraft with no planes taking off because of industrial action by Belgian air traffic controllers, officials said.

“Currently no air traffic control is possible at Brussels Airport,” Brussels Airport said in a statement on its website.

This strike follows French air traffic controllers who went on strike on March 30, which represented their 43rd day of industrial action since 2009.

In general I can’t wrap my head around the constant strikes which take place in Europe over contract terms, given that strikes rarely seem to lead to a favorable resolution. I’m not just blaming the unions, because I think management largely takes a hard-headed approach as well, which adds to the problem.

On the surface this strike in Brussels just weeks after a horrible terrorist attack seems grossly insensitive. I’m not sure if that’s actually the case, or if we’re simply conditioned to feel like a terrible tragedy calls for some period of mourning where we shouldn’t focus on other things.

Even from a negotiating perspective, I feel like this isn’t the right time for Brussels ATC to make any requests. The airport is suffering and will likely be suffering for a long time (many airlines have already canceled and/or downsized flights), so I just don’t see that ending well.

Brussels Airport

Something about this just rubs me the really wrong way…

What do you think — is it insensitive and unreasonable for Belgium ATC to go on strike just a couple of weeks after a terrorist attack at the airport, or should they bargain as usual?

  1. Sorry for this off-topic comment, but Ben are you going to write about the 25 year old American woman who was arrested at the Abu Dhabi airport for being disrespectful to men? Knowing that a lot of your readers have booked Etihad flights into or through Abu Dhabi they might want to know about this story. My Etihad flights are booked and I’m thinking about cancelling them. UAE tries to portray itself as cosmopolitan and modern, maybe it is for men but for women it still seems to be the dark ages there. It makes me afraid to travel there. To others reading my comment, don’t tell me this is an “isolated incident” or I’m overreacting, please remember that such a thing would NEVER happen in the US or in Europe. In civilized places where women are essentially equal to men, women have the right to rebuff advances and complain if they are being abused. Not so elsewhere.

  2. Yes, it is grossly insensitive.

    No, it is not wrong (because who gets to decide?). Coming from healthcare, where unions are common (at least on the West Coast), we were technically able to strike but only with government approval as nurses are seen as a critical service. Frankly, I don’t understand how airport operations (such as ATC) aren’t considered the same when you consider how many people may potentially be put at risk.

  3. Brussels is going to pay dearly for so many years of allowing unfettered immigration. This is just collateral damage, but it will have a strong effect nonetheless.

  4. No, it is not wrong.

    Brussels ATC have been striking for years. I remember connecting through BRU in the 90s. Sitting onboard a Sabena 747-300 for JFK… the pilot came on the PA and said we had 5 mins to taxi to the runway and take off since ATC was closing down for a strike at midday. This was one of the fastest 747 taxi rolls ever, we shot down that runway at full speed and after 5 mins in the air the captain advised we had cleared Brussels airspace and that it was closed.

  5. They are an absolute disgrace to our country considering the time.

    They actually went onstrike because a new collective agreement was concluded which stipulates that they can only retire and obtain a government pension at 58 instead of at 55.

    Meanwhile for any one in a normal job, retirement age has become 67.

    Spoiled government officials!

  6. It’s wrong on so many levels.

    Thirty five years ago President Ronald Reagan fired 13,000 Patco members for striking shutting down or greatly crippling air travel in America. Reagan’s action broke the union. What is different is that it is illegal for ATC to strike in America obviously this is not the case in Europe, but it should be.

  7. Maybe it’s best for airlines to just go bankrupt and lay off the stupid union members.
    No common sense just like the twinkies.

  8. I am a controller in the US, and I have a few thoughts.

    1. Controllers are not employees of an airline, that would be a conflict of interest and could potentially lead to safety issues if some flights were prioritized over others due to a paint job.
    2. It is illegal for US controllers to strike. Currently if contract terms cannot be negotiated, 3rd party mediation is forced and binding. That being said, the culture is quite a bit different here than in Europe. Strikes are far more common, and accepted as a legitimate tactic over there. The timing of this one is surely questionable, but I think it a little closed minded to view a strike in Europe only through from an American point of view.
    3. In the US controller’s face a mandatory retirement age of 56, it is when we lose our class two airman medical clearance. While that is earlier than the average retirement, most jobs do not require you to be responsible for tens of thousands of lives a shift. And speaking of shift work, working early mornings, evenings, overnights, holidays is both challenging on the body, and our families. Furthermore, the job is hard. It requires intense focus, the ability to process a lot of information quickly and the make decisions just as quickly in a dynamic, fast paced and high pressure environment. Studies have been done that a person’s mental aptitude for those tasks decline with age. Experience makes up for that decline for a while, but perfection is expected, the stakes are just too high.

    Just my two cents on a few issues raised by replies.

  9. So… Youre saying that the controllers should alter their behavior because of terrorists. So then I guess the terrorists win then, don’t they?

    Personally I have no friggin idea what one (the attacks) has to do with the other (the strike).

  10. Yes, it’s very very very wrong from ATC to go on strike.
    Yet, the interesting part from this strike is that it’s not really organized by the unions, but people are just calling in sick as their way to strike. Just because they aren’t happy with the result of new negotiations that took place (and should soon be voted by the parliament).

    Here in Belgium, we have a major strike so regularly that we’re used to it. Though it’s still unacceptable. It’s not due to hard-headed management, far from it. It has become a culture aspect: if you’re not happy, you have to take the whole country hostage and you’ll probably get the majority of your demands. The law is in that sense very relaxed and thus this happens so often.
    Also: unlike in other countries: the unions don’t have any “legal status”, which means they cannot be held responsible for economic damages.

    It’s a very complicated issue, which requires a whole book to explain what’s happening. And from their point of view: they don’t care about anything, even if it was the day after the terror attacks, they would still have gone on strike. They only care about their own best interest as their actions today will determine their whole future if the parliament approves the collective employment agreement. Though it still is unacceptable.

  11. I note from Dima and Carl that the controllers were protesting a collective agreement — which means the Unions had already done all the discussion & debate & negotiation … and they weren’t happy and decided to individually go on strike anyway?

  12. @Deodorant
    That’s partially correct. Not all the unions (we have multiple unions that all represent the employees separately) we agreeing with the collective agreement. Though they haven’t specifically called for action.

  13. I live in Brussels. This is just the tip of the iceberg with whats wrong with this country, and I agree it is totally bad timing for an ATC strike. I mean come on. The country is falling apart and we are leaving for the UK!

  14. @Kevin Paul – Thanks for your perspective. The culture is indeed different in Europe. For an American to complain about the temporal proximity of a terrorist attack and a strike is like a European complaining about how religious Americans are, or how much we like guns.

  15. I was at Brussels airport yesterday. My flight to LHR was set to depart at 1645, and right before boarding began the strike was announced. We eventually did make it to LHR a few hours late, but this may have been one of the oddest delays I’ve ever experienced. The SN and BRU airport staff were very accommodating and apologetic throughout the entire process, and many of my fellow passengers conceded that part of the reason we were flying to London instead of taking the train was in an effort to support the airport and the city.

    Brussels airport seems very committed to get back up and running. It is a shame that Belgocontrol is giving a bad name to an otherwise fantastic operation.

  16. I don’t know that I would specifically say insensitive as I don’t think it is disrespecting the tragic events in Brussels, however the timing is definitely horrible and I think it’s an incredibly stupid move on their part. From a public perspective it looks bad and if you think about the psychology of the other side negotiating here, it seems this would only harden their resolve as it makes the ATC workers seem opportunistic and irrational.

    In general I think the standard logic of “why would the workers do something to further hurt the finances of their employer” to be flawed because while a strike hurts a company, those workers could argue greedy executives that make poor decisions or perpetuate bad labor conditions also harm the company. But definitely in this case it’s all around just a horrible decision on their part that impacts the airport, airlines and their employees, and the public for little to no apparent gain.

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