Precious minutes continue to be wasted for all travelers due to unacceptable delays—governments and key ANSPs must address the problem, and quickly.
The summer season in the northern hemisphere is peak travel time. It puts a huge amount of stress on the global system which is struggling to cope with 4 billion passengers.
A clear example of that stress is being felt by air travelers in Europe. Eurocontrol predicts that air traffic control delays on the Continent will be over 14 million minutes this year. But this is almost certainly an under-estimate. So far this year, delays are running at double 2017 levels.
Put another way, 14 million minutes equals 27 years of delays. It is a challenge to calculate the full consequences of that. But however you calculate it, the total impact will likely be under-estimated because who knows what might have happened if those precious minutes had not been wasted.
There is no switch to flip that would make the system perform better immediately. However the components of the solution are no secret. Upgrading technology, reforming work practices, empowering a network manager and enforcing stronger performance penalties are the formula that we need. But Europe’s national politicians have failed for decades to take the action needed.
In the last year, IATA has agreed with Poland, France, Italy, Bulgaria and Spain to develop national airspace strategies that we hope will deliver progress that others can follow. We are eager to turn these agreements to work together into concrete results. A key area of progress is for Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) to plan and deploy human and technological assets and investment appropriately. Lack of resources is not the problem: as flights across Europe have increased, so has the revenue for ANSPs. Eurocontrol calculates that they have made an average 9.6% EBIT in recent years. Contrast that with an expected 6.4% EBIT margin generated by European carriers this year.
Unfortunately, key ANSPs have either under-invested in staff, not deployed them where and when they are most needed, or not made the necessary technological investments to increase capacity.
It is not right that ANSPs—and their government owners—sit on a growing cash pile while passengers suffer.
The need for progress is urgent. The number of travelers is set to double over the next two decades which means that the problem grows bigger with each year. And unless we pick up the pace of reform, the economy of the future—in Europe and around the world—will be severely handicapped because the system will simply not be able to handle the demand for the connectivity that powers growth and development.
So the next time you hear the dreaded air traffic control delay announcement consider using the time to write to your local government representative to ask them to do better. And encourage your friends to do the same. Without change, paralysis awaits.
Alexandre de Juniac: Director General and CEO, IATA