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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Air Strike Unleashes Havoc Across Europe

PARIS -- An air traffic controllers' strike over a plan to unify Europe's disjointed skies crippled airline services Wednesday, grounding flights and stranding passengers throughout much of the continent.

Major carriers canceled 7,700 flights either in or out of France or through French airspace after a massive, one-day strike in France and several other countries to protest the European Union's "single sky" plan.

The continent-wide plan is aimed at reducing congestion and delays for travelers by bringing all air traffic controllers under centralized supervision. Europe's poorly organized airspace is currently a patchwork of air traffic control zones managed by dozens of different air traffic control centers using different monitoring systems.

But unions say centralized control will result in job losses, and that pressure to reduce costs could also result in a privatization of their services, thus increasing safety risks.

It was the third time in two years that air traffic controllers in France held a work stoppage over the "single sky" plan, but the first time that other countries joined in the action.

A spokesman for France's Civil Aviation Union said that talks were desperately needed between EU officials and pilots, air traffic controllers and unions.

"If we feel that the situation is blocked, we'll be forced to strike again," said the union spokesman, Patrick Malandin.

"And if there has to be a next time, maybe the strike won't be limited to a single day," he added.

Neither the airlines nor the unions that had called the strike were able to estimate how many passengers were affected.

Apart from the full-day walkout in France, air traffic controllers observed less crippling work stoppages in Greece, Portugal, Italy, and Hungary, France's Civil Aviation Authority said.

Air France said passengers could count on no more than 10 percent of its domestic and European flights but that 90 percent of its long-haul flights were to fly as scheduled. Air traffic was not 100 percent paralyzed because a small number of controllers remained on the job.

Many exhausted passengers had little choice but to wait out the strike to get to their destination.

British Airways said it had canceled all but four of its 126 flights in and out of France, affecting about 15,000 passengers. It also canceled 38 flights to Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg.

Heathrow, Britain's busiest airport, was unusually quiet Wednesday.

"I think people have seen it on the news and if their flights have been canceled, they've just not come," said Dal Gill, manager of a Boots pharmacy at the airport.

Germany's Lufthansa canceled 130 flights between Germany and France, spokeswoman Sabine Hess said. Only 10 flights between France and Frankfurt were still running, with larger aircraft than usual to accommodate more passengers.

Sixty-seven flights were canceled at the airport in Frankfurt, continental Europe's biggest, said Robert Payne, a spokesman for airport operator Fraport.

In Italy, air traffic controllers held a strike for one hour. Alitalia canceled 50 flights, 48 international and two domestic, and rescheduled 100 flights, affecting about 8,000 passengers.

In Spain, delays or cancellations were reported in Barcelona, Malaga and Palma de Mallorca.

More than 130 flights were canceled between France and Switzerland's three airports. Delays for passengers flying to other destinations from Switzerland were as long as two hours.

The delays and cancellations became worse for southbound passengers after air traffic controllers in Greece, Portugal and Italy joined the strike, Swiss officials said.

Manfred Winkler, spokesman for new national carrier Swiss Air Lines, said more than 2,300 of its passengers were affected by the cancellation of 50 Swiss flights to and from France.