By Achim Baumann, Policy Director, A4E

2018, one of the worst years for European air traffic control delays and flight cancellations in nearly a decade, is thankfully long gone. The delays? Not so much.

Recently, Eurocontrol’s Network Manager published its 2018 annual report, stating that the average en-route air traffic flow management (ATFM) delays totalled 1,73 min per flight compared to a target of 0,5 min per flight. That’s a delay of nearly three times the expected target. This can mainly be attributed to:
• En-route air traffic control (ATC) capacity constraints (28%), en-route weather (19%) and en-route ATC staff shortages (17%);
• An increase in traffic of 3.8% compared to 2017, representing over 11 million additional flights.

For years, A4E and the wider aviation industry in Europe have been calling for more efficient airspace in light of the expected traffic growth. We need a seamless European sky in a single European aviation market.
Unfortunately, the first few months of this year are not looking any better than last year. En-route ATFM delays in April 2019 increased by almost 40% compared to the previous month, for example. On average, some 757 flights per day had an en-route ATFM delay of at least 15 minutes, which is 7% more flights compared to April 2018. This trend is deeply concerning.

Taken together with the start of ATC strike season and peak summer travel in Europe, what should passengers expect?

For months, A4E and its members have been working behind the scenes with all of the relevant stakeholders to develop a mitigation plan for delays this summer. Together with the Network Manager and air navigation service providers (ANSPs), for example, we have put specific measures in place to reduce delays at known ATC bottleneck regions, e.g. when it comes to ATC capacity and staff shortfalls. This is based on experiences gained from last summer and was expanded to include most of Europe. These measures will effectively move flights out of congested airspace (where the ANSP cannot provide adequate capacity and/or staffing levels) and into other areas which are able to accommodate the additional traffic.

Many airlines (and other airspace users) have welcomed and jointly developed these solutions together with Eurocontrol. We all have a common interest in improving the delay situation on behalf of our passengers. Altogether some 180 different pan-European re-routings and other measures stand ready to be implemented or are already in use since the end of April.

Unfortunately, re-routings will by no means increase efficiency or reduce CO2 emissions levels – yet, they represent a short-term “fix” to the current ATC capacity and staff challenges and ultimately seek to lessen the impact on passengers at all costs.

A4E is closely monitoring the effectiveness and success of these agreed measures and will report back on the situation in the coming months.

What else is happening, which might positively influence the future of EU airspace reform? The EU’s Airspace Architecture Study (AAS) and Wise Persons Group (WPG) reports have also both been recently published. They contain recommendations on how to improve EU airspace either on the technical/operational side or with a more regulatory view, covering current operations through 2035. These sets of recommendations need to be detailed and broken down into actionable items.

An implementation plan is needed with clear roles and responsibilities. At this point, A4E believes the focus should be on:
(1) Implementing the airspace reforms as recommended by the AAS (e.g. re-structuring the airspace to be aligned with traffic flows or cross border airspace);
(2) Preparing for a network-centric approach to flight planning and enabling air traffic controllers and pilots to reap the benefits of digitalisation.

In both cases, what has already started with bringing a service-centred approach forward by integrating airlines and other airspace users needs to continue.

As A4E we are looking forward to being part of this work, fulfilling our responsibility to create a seamless, more sustainable European sky within a single European aviation market. We call on all other aviation stakeholders to support this cause for the benefit of our passengers and equally for the better care of our environment.