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ATC Delays

Summer Has Arrived. Are ATC Delays Heating Up?

By  Brussels, — Last updated on 30 March 2020

In May I promised a follow up report on the ATC delay situation this summer, following new measures introduced by A4E airlines this spring. According to the latest Eurocontrol figures — there’s good news — and still some bad news to report.

First the good news:

Delays caused by weather and ATC strikes have decreased from 18,000 minutes of delay per day (Jan.–June 2018) to 9,600 minutes of delay per day (Jan.–June 2019).

En-route delays are slightly down compared to last year, and even better than originally forecasted.

Now, the bad news:

Structural delays due to ATC staffing and capacity shortfalls continue to increase (from 20,500 minutes per day in 2018 to 27,300 minutes per day in 2019.)

So, what does this mean for the average traveller?

It means that flight delays this summer are not any better than last summer. Everyone feared the worst — but better weather, less strikes and coordinated mitigation planning between airlines, air navigation service providers (ANSPs) and Eurocontrol has helped to keep delays in check.

What is happening at the network level?

To mitigate the structural issues — which were already apparent in 2018 — about 1,000 flights per day have been moved away from their preferred airspace trajectories to avoid known ATC bottlenecks, thus successfully helping to curb delays. On the downside, these moves negatively impact the environment, with up to 30% longer flights and up to 27% higher fuel burn as a result.

What are airlines doing?

Airlines are adding more resources on the ground and in the hangars to alleviate the impact of these delays on passengers. Some 5% of A4E airlines’ fleet have been dedicated as spare aircraft this summer — meaning the aircraft are put into use at the last-minute as needed, in order to keep peak season operations running smoothly. At one of our airlines, for example, this is the equivalent fleet size of a regional airline in Europe.

Wondering why your usual flight appears longer on your ticket? Airlines have proactively expanded flight times in order to include a buffer in their schedules to better accommodate any delays. Only by planning and adapting flight schedules can airlines successfully support the mitigation measures agreed on a network level to benefit their passengers. Unfortunately, as delays go down due to adaptations to the flight schedule, so do the choices available to travellers.

Are there lessons learned?

We still need to implement European airspace reform as quickly as possible and we still need to push for a network centric approach to allow air traffic controllers and pilots to reap the benefits of new technologies currently available.

What happens next?

The European Commission’s Single European Sky ATM (Air Traffic Management) R&D coordination group (SESAR JU) and Eurocontrol’s Network Manager are working on a transition plan to put the implementation of the recent Airspace Architecture Study recommendations into motion. This is done in close cooperation with the airspace users and other ATM stakeholders. Furthermore, a new vision document agreed by ATM stakeholders has been developed by the Industry Consultation Body. And finally, the Finnish EU presidency has aviation high on their agenda. A Digital European Sky – High Level Conference on the Future of Single European Sky is planned for September.

It looks like we are finally addressing what A4E and the wider aviation industry in Europe have been calling for — a more efficient EU airspace in light of the expected traffic growth and regulatory updates to “future-proof” the system. This means a seamless European sky in a single European aviation market.

A4E is playing an active role in the work that lies ahead. We call on all other aviation stakeholders, the EU institutions and member states to join our efforts to reform our ATM environment to the benefit of our passengers, the industry’s workforce and our planet.