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Claude Paris

PARIS - A massive battle is taking place in the skies over Europe - and airplane passengers across the continent are feeling its effects.

A plan to simplify the European Union's patchwork air traffic control system and open more air traffic duties to private enterprise has sparked strikes and job actions by controllers that began Tuesday in France and were to spread today to 10 other European nations.

At the heart of the dispute is the idea of a single European sky - consolidating the continent's hodgepodge air traffic control systems under a sole authority, turning its many scattered air traffic zones into a few regional blocs, opening bidding on services like weather forecasting and navigation, and easing what European officials say is a looming capacity crunch.

About 27,000 flights a day now cross European airspace, for a total of more than 9 million a year. Most are flying under air traffic management systems that were designed in the 1950s, the European Commission said.

Air traffic control workers, however, don't necessarily want to adapt to new proposals put forward by the European Commission on Tuesday. They say they fear threats to passenger safety and to their jobs and claim the EU is yielding to industry pressure to cut costs.

"This is a dispute between European technocrats who know nothing about air traffic control and highly trained specialists," said Olivier Joffrin, a French union leader in Paris.

Air traffic controllers in France began a series of strikes on Tuesday, forcing the country's main airports to cut flight timetables in half just as the busy tourist season was beginning. Some 1,800 flights were canceled.

Air traffic workers elsewhere in Europe were expected to join over the next 24 hours to varying degrees - from working strictly by the book, to picketing and distributing leaflets, according to the European Transport Workers Federation.

The strikes came the same day that EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas called for the speedy implementation of the centralization plan, saying the current system's inefficiencies are costing airlines and customers $6.6 billion annually.

"If we leave things as they are, we will be confronted with heavy congestion and chaos in our airspace," Kallas told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, as he introduced the latest plan.

Due to national borders, many flights over Europe take routes that the EU estimates add an average of 26 miles to each flight. Jet fuel makes up an increasing portion of airlines' costs, and Europe's air traffic is expected to increase 50 percent over the next 20 years.

"This is a dispute between ... technocrats who know nothing about air traffic control and highly trained specialists."

Olivier Joffrin, a French union leader in Paris