Although 2022’s strong recovery in air traffic was welcome, it did create challenges.

Most notably in Europe there were significant delays and capacity constraints at key airports.

According to Eurocontrol, there was a 33% increase in arrival delays compared with 2019, reaching 16.9 minutes per flight on average. Peak periods easily exceeded that average. Departure punctuality was below 50% at the beginning of July and rarely rose above 60% for the next two months. The difficulties were such that 6.9% of 2022 scheduled flights didn’t take off at all.

The bad news is that the northern hemisphere 2023 summer season could be even worse.


A challenging summer

Rory Sergison, IATA’s Head of ATM Infrastructure Europe, says that there are myriad challenges facing European airspace in the coming peak summer months. “We can’t predict what will happen or how our service partners, such as airports and air navigation service providers (ANSPs), will cope and that makes it impossible for airlines to plan,” he says.

Russian and Ukrainian airspaces are closed, as is Moldovan airspace due to sanctions. Assuming the Russia-Ukraine war continues, traffic will get pushed south, overloading a south-eastern European corridor to / from Turkey and Greece that will already be thick with tourist traffic to popular vacation destinations. The progressive reopening of Asian markets will exacerbate the problem.

Added to this is strong traffic growth in central Europe and south-Eastern Europe, the latter having already surpassed 2019 levels in summer 2022. Planned military activity is also on the rise, particularly in France and Germany.

“And then there’s the industrial unrest in the system,” says Sergison. “France is especially concerning as air traffic control officers (ATCOs) do not have to give details of their proposed strike action. Their airspace could fall to a minimum service with very little notice.”

Finally, there is no guarantee that key airports, including Amsterdam Schiphol and London Heathrow, won’t once again respond to high demand by limiting capacity.

“You have to protect the consumer,” stresses Sergison. “You have to give them confidence and trust in the air travel ecosystem but that just won’t be there unless there are immediate, significant changes.”


Network Manager

Solutions are not easy to come by. Eurocontrol’s Network Manager, which essentially attempts to coordinate European airspace to optimize traffic flow, does not have executive powers, leaving country ANSPs free to focus on alleviating problems in their jurisdiction, regardless of the knock-on effects.

Nevertheless, air traffic flow management (ATFM) is an important metric in Europe, as it used in the Single European Sky (SES) Performance Scheme. The average en-route delay per flight in 2022 was 1.76 minutes, an 11% increase compared with 1.58 minutes in 2019. Worryingly, the two key airspaces—France and Germany—are responsible for the majority of delays.

“As for SES, we all know that the reform is blocked politically, and the functional airspace blocks (FABs) supposed to drive SES forward have failed,” says Sergison. “States have in their hands the ability to make a 10% improvement in sustainability through SES, but we are going nowhere fast.”


The way forward

There are good ANSPs in Europe. Bulgaria, Romania, and Spain for example, are handling traffic above their capacity but still delivering an excellent service. And SESAR, an initiative that designs and implements new technologies for ANSPs, is making some small improvements in specific procedures or geographies.

For Sergison, this proves that the problem is not unsolvable, but that the overall system is falling short and most ANSPs need to show greater agility in their approach. “Flexible rostering by ANSPs and airports to adjust to any imbalances in the system would be a good start,” Sergison says. “For example, we know that some ATCO’s even have mandated leave in the busy summer period. We need to be realistic and deliver capacity when it is needed.”

Better oversight would also go a long way. Service provision needs stronger targets and non-delivery must be appropriately handled. 

“European skies were saturated in 2022 and we expect more traffic in 2023,” concludes Sergison. “It will be tough to avoid delays given the challenges the European system faces, but with a combination of procedural, technological, and rostering improvements, we could mitigate the worst of the problems.

“But ANSPs and States must act now, and they must act decisively. They need to deliver in a transparent manner that will allow airlines to fly published schedules and provide the end consumer with the service required.”


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