European governments must find the resolve to help aviation overcome an infrastructure crisis

Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO, says he fears the industry is heading for “an infrastructure crisis."

Congestion is already an established reality in Europe. The number of slot-coordinated airports is a good indicator, de Juniac notes. “This tells us where there is not sufficient capacity to meet demand,” he says.

“At present, airport slots are allocated at some 175 airports worldwide, 102 of them in Europe. Capacity issues are not limited to Europe, but clearly Europe faces a huge shortfall in both air traffic management (ATM) and airports.

“Inadequate infrastructure negatively impacts the passenger experience in the form of flight delays, longer routes, and inefficient schedules,” he continues.

“Then there is the cost to economies of lost business opportunities, employment, and social development.” Eurocontrol’s latest estimate is that by 2035 a “most-likely” scenario will see 12% of demand go unaccommodated, corresponding to 1.9 million flights or 120 million passenger roundtrips.

Given that aviation is a critical catalyst for economic and social development, supporting close to 12 million European jobs and $900 million in economic impact, the need to avoid a European infrastructure crisis is critical.

Inefficient skies

More runways and terminals can only help so much. European skies are inefficient and, says de Juniac, “the Single European Sky (SES) initiative is failing."

Average flights are nearly 50km longer than they need to be and delays average around 10 minutes per flight. An IATA commissioned study by SEO Economic Research estimated that these inefficiencies, if unchecked, will grow in the next couple of decades to eventually cost the European economy €245 billion and 1 million unrealized jobs.

The Single European Sky project aims to deliver a threefold increase in capacity, improve safety by a factor of 10, reduce aviation’s environmental impact 10%, and cut costs by 50%.

But national interests are prevailing over common sense and watered down performance targets are doing little to help. During 2015, there were 14 million minutes of delays and 2016 is set to finish higher. That makes it likely that European Commission delay targets will be missed by more than 70%.

“SES is blocked and a new approach is desperately needed,” says Peter Curran, Assistant Director for ATM at IATA.

“The system simply won’t manage the demand put on it in 5 or 10 years’ time. The Network Manager estimates an additional 13,000 daily flights by 2035.”

IATA argues for a fundamental redesign of the way European airspace is managed to enable greater flexibility in flight profiles and a reduction in fuel, emissions, and delays. 

National Airspace Strategies (NAS) have been identified as the best way forward. Simply, these entail a national level program that sets out the case for modernization, including working arrangements and immediate priorities.

NAS principles include:

  •  Industry inclusive governance with all key stakeholders developing and monitoring performance
  •  Business continuity that addresses service resilience to failures, the ability to recovery when failures do occur, and contingency arrangements
  •  Integration with the wider network and alignment between national approaches “European passengers deserve a better system, one that works without unreasonable delays and costs,” Curran insists.

“Brussels can’t drive the SES on its own. If we want to realize €245 billion and 1 million European jobs in 2035, then we need a commitment to change at the national level.”

De Juniac concludes that providing infrastructure is the responsibility of governments. And experience shows that the best results come when consultation with users keeps their needs in focus as the developments take place.

“No matter how much or how quickly we innovate our processes, there is no getting around the need to be both smart and quick in growing airport and airspace capacity,” he adds.

Tipping point

Olivier Jankovec, Director General at ACI Europe, agrees that there is “no question” that Europe is headed for an infrastructure crisis. European governments must ask themselves when the tipping point will be reached and what they can do to minimize the damage, he suggests.

But “there is little of the political vision or appetite for grand projects as there was in the past,” he warns.

Without sufficient air transport infrastructure, there would be a significant impact on one of the central pillars of the European Union — freedom of movement.

Speaking earlier this year, Carolyn McCall, easyJet’s CEO suggested that “when economists actually looked into this they concluded that 75% of intra-European passenger journeys currently made by air would not be made if travelers had to use rail or road. And, of course the number would be even higher for long haul air travel.”

The Task Force at the European Observatory on Airport Capacity and Quality has made some lukewarm recommendations, such as creating a repository of Master Plans in the Network Manager.

It also recommends taking a holistic view of the capacity crunch and tasking “the Network Manager with assessing key national and airport plans periodically against forecast needs, identifying bottlenecks and challenging Member States to fill or otherwise manage identified capacity shortfalls.”

But Jankovec’s view is backed up by figures produced by Eurocontrol, which found in its last Challenges of Growth study that airport expansion plans are increasingly rare, with just 17% capacity expansion planned up to 2035.

IATA’s latest 20-year passenger forecast puts European growth at 2.5%, annually, equating to an additional 570 million passengers a year. In 2035, the total European market will be 1.5 billion passengers.

Jankovec does see some hope in partnership. All stakeholders — airlines, airports, and governments — must play their part in driving forward a solution.

“The key thing that all those parties want is efficiency, that’s the common ground and that’s the foundation,” he continues. “Fundamentally, if you support the Single European Sky, then supporting infrastructure development on the ground is a logical, aligned position. SES proposes to triple airspace capacity in Europe — but if you don’t have matching airport capacity on the ground, then the problem of congestion or inefficiency doesn’t go away. It simply moves to another part of the air transport supply chain. It’s the same with air traffic rights liberalization. These are only meaningful when there is adequate capacity for new entrants to access the market.

“We are all in this together,” he adds. “There isn’t a magic, instant solution. It takes time and gradual degrees of co-operation.”