by Achim Baumann, Policy Director, A4E

At the beginning of this year, A4E called on Member States and Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) to take urgent measures to ensure this summer’s peak travel season would be a smooth one for EU passengers. Fast forward to September, and here are the results*:

  • June 2018 vs June 2017 en-route delays: +150,2%
  • July 2018 vs July 2017 en-route delays: +102,4%
  • August 2018 vs August 2017 en-route delays: +102,1%

The main reasons for this shocking increase in delays: 1) A lack of capacity provided by ANSPs, and 2) an overall shortage among Air Traffic Control staff (ATCOs), with weather a contributing factor. Together, they have a detrimental impact on European airspace, making it less resilient.

On the flip side, it has never been easier or more affordable to fly. With a growing economy, European air traffic increased an average of 4% this summer versus last and is expected to grow even further in the future. As an industry, we should be celebrating. Instead, we are cringing.

All in all, the network managed more than 3.2 million flights during the summer period, while at the same time generating 10.6 million minutes of delay – the equivalent of over 20 years. Here’s where it gets worse: In all of 2017, en-route delays totalled “just” 9.3 million minutes in comparison. This is proof that the system has simply reached its limit. Passengers should not suffer the cost of these delays — nor should airlines, who are striving to provide an affordable, high quality travel experience.

The entire aviation industry as well as the European Commission acknowledges that we are in a capacity crunch situation when it comes to Europe’s air traffic management system. The truth is, coordinated actions which could have alleviated the problem have been scarce. Urgent challenges are not being addressed fast enough, like:

  • insufficient ATC staffing;
  • delayed/uncoordinated investments in technology/automation;
  • basic inefficiencies in airspace design and cooperation across different Member States;
  • State interests vs a European wide network approach

In addition, Eurocontrol states that the situation will remain challenging for some time to come. That said, there are already a number of ongoing initiatives that should help to mitigate some of these issues in 2019.

For example, ANSPs and Eurocontrol are making a solid effort to tackle the most pressing issues. But as the reality shows, it was too little, too late for this summer. Airlines reiterated this message recently at Eurocontrol’s Route Network Development Sub Group, which is responsible for European airspace structure.

So how do we prevent the current situation from repeating itself in the coming years – or getting worse? The legal framework and the tools to prevent such a capacity crunch in the future are readily available — but:

  • Single European Sky (SES) regulation has not been implemented to a large extent, due to lacking support of EU Member States;
  • Functional Airspace Blocks have not delivered as promised, due to State interests;
  • A seamless airspace (or European Upper Information Region) was not addressed at all, although it was part of the original SES regulation adopted in 2004.

Our message is clear: We need a collaborative environment where Member States, ANSPs as well as the European Commission, airports and airlines can come together to speedily implement a number of solutions – an approach that is long overdue. As airlines, we are taking an active role to lessen the impact on our passengers in the short term. In the long term, however, the politicians must be willing to put their national interests aside and work together with the wider aviation community to achieve the seamless European sky passengers deserve.

*Eurocontrol Monthly Network Operations Report, June-Aug. 2018