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Eoghan Corry: Today's air traffic controller strike will see our reputation crash and economy stranded

There goes our reputation again. The air traffic controllers who are set to close the airports and disrupt the travel plans of tens of thousands of people today know they have more power than anyone else in either the public or private sector.

And they are about to use it.

Like all airport spats, the reasons for the strike will be beyond the comprehension of most of the people left stranded.

It is a mixed bag of old scores to be settled from last year's shambles, a class "defined benefit" versus "defined cost" pensions row, background noise about pay and conditions, and the side effects of a belligerent attitude to new technology.

Even the language of the battlefield is depressingly familiar. Liam Kavanagh of the Irish Aviation Authority: "We cannot function if we have to pay people every time we upgrade a system."

Michael O'Leary, with characteristic incendiary touch, has posted a notice on the Ryanair website telling passengers to seek compensation directly from Impact general secretary Peter McCloone, with the phone number and email address.

The horizon has changed in the period of time since previous rounds in this prize fight of the skies.

Against the background of a recession, the Aviation Authority were quick to publicise the working conditions of their air-traffic controllers: a 35-hour week, a break of 30 minutes for every two hours worked, five days on and then get three days off, 182 days a year work with 137 rest days, and 36 days holidays, in addition to 10 public holidays.

For this they earn €115k, and if you factor in the pension contribution and the PRSI contribution that the IAA makes for each person, their total package comes to almost €160k.

A 6pc pay increase would cost the authority an additional €6m, to be passed on to the passengers since the IAA receives no funding from Government. That means you and me.

Refund

We are already paying. The impact has been felt this morning by departing passengers whose flights to Krakow or Berlin and many other destinations were cancelled.

Even though these flights are outside the 2pm-6pm disruption hours, the nature of a modern airline means that no airline can afford to have a plane stranded outside the country.

Aer Lingus, who cancelled 64 flights, is telling passengers they can get a refund if they choose not to travel and can rebook their flights, Ryanair, who cancelled 48 flights, is also offering a rebooking option. The cost to the airlines will run to several million.

What is it about? Changes to the IAA pension scheme are at the heart of the latest air traffic control row. The authority wants concessions similar to those of other public-sector staff to meet a €234m shortfall in their scheme. In common with most other employers, they argue that defined benefit schemes are unsustainable. Even in the good times the wheels were coming off the public-sector pension funds, and the only ones that have survived have been almost exclusively in the public sector. The Aviation Authority is in a strange place.

It is a public-sector employer operating in a private-sector environment, and the transition has not been easy for either management or workforce.

The 115k brigade is an unlikely group of militants to be running the crimson flag up the pole. For Impact, and the entire trade union movement, the air-traffic controllers are important.

A small group of workers can do disproportionate damage to the economy and to Ireland's reputation abroad.

Havoc

Why bring the entire public sector out on strike if a few hundred air-traffic controllers can close the country down?

Nor is a solution going to appear on the radar anytime soon.

A simple work-to-rule can cause untold havoc in our airspace. Training new air-traffic controllers takes years.

The whine you hear this afternoon won't be an aircraft coming in to land.

It will be the sound of stranded passengers, a stranded economy, and a stranded reputation.

We have all got good reason to whine.


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