The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

An airport tragedy in Paris

Jun 7, 2004

The following article was excerpted and translated from an article appearing in Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the newspaper of the French Trotskyist organization. The account of the collapsing airport terminal sounds similar to what we have seen in this country. The push to make profit at the expense of human life goes on everywhere in the capitalist world. On May 23, a new departure terminal structure at the Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport near Paris collapsed. A 100-foot long tubular-shaped structure of concrete, glass and steel cracked and fell to the ground. Passengers walk through this area to check-in and pass to their departure gate. Four people were killed and three others seriously injured.

It was only luck that more people weren't killed or seriously injured. The incident happened early in the morning, before too many passengers were in the area – and a fireman, noticing the structure cracking, decided on the spot to evacuate the area.

The following day, more cracking sounds were heard, leading to the complete closure of this brand-new terminal, the sixth one built at Roissy airport.

The so-called Safety Commission

Once the opening date had been announced, Air France launched a publicity campaign for its new "showpiece" terminal constructed with the latest design techniques. It was to serve for its expanded activity to China and to house KLM, the Dutch airline that Air France has recently purchased. When construction problems arose that could delay this opening, the pressures were immense to go ahead anyway. The first opening date had already been set back after fissures appeared in the support structures of the terminal. There were other problems too, such as violations in public access and fire controls. And, at the time of one inspection, a ceiling light structure even crashed to the ground and the Safety Commission could see a number of water leaks.

Workers protested the poor working conditions and the problems with construction, but their protests were not reported. In the last weeks leading up to the Grand Opening, workers were forced under pressure to work around the clock, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to meet the deadline. As a result of this intense pressure to work faster and faster to complete the project by the given date, a number of serious accidents took place, leaving at least one worker killed when he fell from a ceiling platform and another paralyzed for life.

Air France and the ADP, the airport authority responsible for constructing the new terminal, pressured their contractors and sub-contractors to hire even more temporary workers in order to meet the opening date of June 27, 2003. The opening was held with great fanfare despite all the problems.

Profit pressures, too

It is only after the dramatic collapse of Terminal E that the news media have now made public a report issued by the cost commission for terminal construction at the airport. While this report praised the fact that this latest terminal cost 20% less than the previous terminal, it also in fact acknowledged that the push to save money had led to problems. Upwards of 400 subcontractors were used to lower the costs to the giant construction companies that held the major contracts, with no one really controlling the whole project. The new terminal had eliminated a great deal of material by "simplifying" the design of the earlier terminal it was based on. The original building plans for the terminal were rejected because the companies building it were having difficulties with the modern roof structure – they said it was in danger of falling.

The costs have not ended

The entire new terminal may now have to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch since the basic structure is likely weakened. With its ultra-modern, near pillar-less design, one fault can lead to a chain of others. Air France "magnanimously" announced that it would not lay off any of its employees. But of course, this announcement concerned only full-time permanent employees. There are many temporary hires, contract workers and sub-contract workers at the airport. In fact, this has been the trend over the last number of years. Air France, like other businesses, increases its profits by reducing the pay of those who do the work at the airport – from construction to operations, to cleaning and maintenance through to the operation of the airport stores and restaurants. These thousands of workers' jobs are now jeopardized, just as were the lives of the people who walked through the dangerous terminal.