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Poland prepares to limit flights to and from Warsaw

WARSAW — Polish air passengers are bracing for chaos this weekend. 

Starting on Saturday, Poland will limit the operating hours of Warsaw’s two airports thanks to an ongoing dispute between the country’s air traffic control authorities and flight controllers over pay and work conditions.

The move will see Warsaw Chopin, Poland’s largest airport, and the smaller Modlin airport to the north of the city that serves Ryanair, operate only between 9:30 a.m. and 5 p.m., which will lead to the suspension of about 300 flights a day.

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki issued an order limiting the airports’ operations because of a looming threat of more flight controllers leaving their jobs if the currently deadlocked talks with Poland’s Air Navigation Services Agency (PANSA) yield no results.

“If there are not enough controllers, flights will have to be limited,” Morawiecki said on Tuesday. 

Morawiecki also took a jab at the controllers, saying: “This is a narrow professional group which earns a lot in Warsaw and I think they could compromise here and come to an agreement.” He added that they have “some of the best work conditions in Europe” and pointed out they work only 30-hour weeks.

Affected airlines have threatened to seek damages from PANSA if they can’t fly out of the Polish capital.

The heart of the problem is Warsaw flight controllers’ refusal to sign up to new pay rules. PANSA said in January that monthly pay, reaching in rare cases 100,000 złoty (€21,500), was “impossible” to maintain. The new rules call for top pay levels of 45,000 złoty a month.

Out of 208 air traffic controllers working earlier this year, 44 quit in February with another 131 reportedly preparing to leave by the end of April.

The PM’s order also gives a priority list of 32 airports with connections to Warsaw, starting with London’s three airports — Heathrow, Luton, and Stansted — followed by the main airports of Frankfurt, New York, Chicago, Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, and Rome. It also gives flights out of Warsaw Chopin priority over those out of Modlin.

Polish airports in Szczecin and Rzeszów also made the list, the latter being the key point for shipping military and other aid to war-torn Ukraine.

“It is very likely that we will be forced to cancel up to 75% of scheduled flights or change the flight hours,” said LOT, Poland’s national airline.

But its rivals are fuming that the restrictions favor the Polish state-owned carrier.

“The prime minister arbitrarily selected 32 destinations served from Warsaw, to give them priority in the event of the expected ATC capacity collapse on 1 May,” Ryanair said in a statement.

According to Ryanair, excluding routes to Stockholm or Milan is “inexplicable,” as is the inclusion of “LOT’s routes to Berlin and Vilnius, which can easily be reached by train or road in just a few hours.”

The low-cost carrier called on European Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean and competition chief Margrethe Vestager “to intervene today to ensure that basic principles of EU law are respected by the Polish prime minister and to prevent this blatant discrimination against Ryanair and our customers.” 

The Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The talks between the flight controllers’ union ZZKRL and PANSA resumed on Tuesday morning. 

PANSA has said that the new pay rules are an element of its post-pandemic modernization plan, “implemented in response to the unprecedented crisis in the aviation industry and the difficult financial situation of the agency.”

Warsaw-based controllers manage around 3,000 flights a day, 700 of which overfly Polish airspace. Of these, some 300 will need to be rerouted due to a lack of controllers, Eurocontrol, the EU’s airspace manager, said in an emailed statement.

The agency is consulting with its partners on how best to handle those flights — which adds to the already difficult air traffic situation in the region following the closure of Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian skies due to sanctions and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“If no solution is reached, there will be very negative consequences on the European aviation network,” Eurocontrol said.

Warsaw Chopin is Poland’s busiest, with nearly 100,000 operations in 2021, a third of the overall traffic in Poland. Still, traffic in Warsaw has only reached 50 percent of operations compared with pre-pandemic 2019.

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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