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While enjoying the sunshine at the bank of the river Main in Frankfurt (Germany) this evening, I saw a LATAM B787-9 depart over the city center towards the north. This was slightly surprising, as the only LATAM flight from Frankfurt is LAN705 to Madrid (Spain) (and then to Santigo, Chile) which is to the southwest. I have taken this flight quite a few times before and I don't remember it ever flew a northerly departure.

Even more surprising was that continued for a while to north, until I lost sight of it and had to take out the Flight Radar 24 App to track it. The flight continued towards the northwest, into the Netherlands and across the North Sea towards the UK.

By now I highly doubted the flight was going to Madrid. The only reason I could think of for this routing is that either LATAM changed their flight schedule and flies via another city to Chile or the aircraft was being ferried to Boeing in the US for maintenance (LATAM has many problems with the B789 Rolls Royce engines).

Coming back home, I just checked again where the flight was (fully expecting it to be mid-Atlantic) and I see this:

Flight Radar 24 map of Europe with flight path and other aircraft source: Flight Radar 24

Flight Aware map of Europe with flight path source: Flight Aware

The flight departed Frankfurt, turn north, then northeast over Belgium and the Netherlands, into the UK. Then went over London, west-southwest over Lands-end, then over the Celtic sea it finally turns southbound toward Spain. It now entered Spain and seems to be heading to Madrid, but the flight will be over 2500 km, while a straight line between Frankfurt and Madrid airports is about 1420 km.

What is going on? What is the reason for flying over 2500 kilometers, while it could be only 1500?

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    $\begingroup$ For a hint why avoiding France may be good sometimes see this question. But I am sure there is something else going on. $\endgroup$ – DeltaLima Jul 1 '18 at 21:16
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    $\begingroup$ Same thing a few weeks ago for FRA to PMI diversion outside french airspace (the pilot even announced it and had to get more fule after boarding): ATC strikes in france. $\endgroup$ – PlasmaHH Jul 2 '18 at 9:17
  • $\begingroup$ Because kerosene is still way too cheap considering its energy density. $\endgroup$ – Eric Duminil Jul 2 '18 at 12:22
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I can't be completely sure but the most likely reason is a planned strike by ATC in south-east France. It was planned from the 30th of June to the 1st or 2nd (depending on the source) of July, meaning that ATC services would be unavailable or at least seriously reduced in that area, presumably with knock-on effects in other parts of the country. Some airlines had cancelled flights completely although in the end it looks like the strike was called off.

Strikes are notoriously common in France (there's even a website dedicated to tracking them all) and especially in the summer, so an airline might just plan to avoid French airspace altogether to avoid the uncertainty. Of course that costs more money, as you said, but a missed connection to Chile and stranded passengers in Madrid would also cost money.

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    $\begingroup$ Is there any advantage for an airline that has a 2500km flight planned & filed to stay with that decision instead of going for the 1500km option when learning that the strike has been called off? After all, a quick estimation shows that 1000km extra in a B789 costs between 10.000€ and 15.000€ of fuel. That's definitely worth re-planning the flight, isn't it? Is there maybe some fine for the airline to arrive earlier at an airport than they have the slot for? $\endgroup$ – Florian Jul 1 '18 at 23:08
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, as soon as I saw the question title for this, my first thought was "sounds like the French ATCs are on strike again." There was a comment a while back on travel.se describing French transit-industry strikes: "The French tend to only strike in certain months. They are October, July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August, and February." $\endgroup$ – reirab Jul 2 '18 at 5:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Florian the problem is uncertainty. I don't think there's anything that legally stopped their strike, just that they called it off. They could've called it back on just the same. $\endgroup$ – Nelson Jul 2 '18 at 12:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Florian It's a good point and I have no idea, I just know that strikes are a very common cause of disruption in France, in all sorts of areas. The third link in my answer says that some cancelled flights could be reinstated, but it also says that the strike may still happen soon because the only thing that happened was that the formal notice of intention to strike was withdrawn. Other airlines took it seriously enough to cancel flights completely, so planning a new route to ensure the connection in Madrid (presumably) seems plausible to me. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Jul 2 '18 at 13:26
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    $\begingroup$ This sounds like the plausible answer, but still it seems extreme to me to fly all around France to avoid a regional strike in the south-east of France (Marseille). $\endgroup$ – DeltaLima Jul 2 '18 at 15:49
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Not having been there I can't tell for sure, but I would guess congestion.

For safety reasons, the number of flights handled by one controller, and thus flying through their sector, in an hour is limited (to 35 IIRC). If there are more flight plans filed though it than the capacity, the flow management, handled in Europe by the Network Manager Operations Centre, will start to issue delays. If the airline dispatcher does not like this—probably because the delay would cause problems with connections somewhere down the line—they can try to negotiate different route that avoids the congested area.

As mentioned in Why do airlines follow these routes between between Barcelona and Düsseldorf?, France has quite many restricted areas, which makes it more likely to get congested.

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In addition to the other reasons, it might simply be a matter of avoiding ATC charges. ATC charges by the mile multiplied by a factor for the size of the plane. However out in the Bay of Biscay ATC is pretty much free.

See this article on the BBC for more details. Here is a table comparing the costs.

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    $\begingroup$ The price of fuel for such a detour outweighs the ATC costs by far. $\endgroup$ – DeltaLima Jul 2 '18 at 15:51

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