Eamonn Brennan, Director General of Eurocontrol, says cooperation across aviation sectors is the key to an effective restart of the industry

Europe’s air traffic has been decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Eamonn Brennan discusses the way forward to ensuring seamless air traffic management of the European skies coming out of the crisis.

How badly has air traffic been affected by the outbreak?

The coronavirus pandemic has been catastrophic for European traffic. There was a 90% reduction in air traffic across the network at the worst point of the crisis. Virtually everything in the sky was cargo with just a few passenger flights. The system has been decimated and, most importantly, all the cash has been taken out of it.

What have ANSPs been doing to survive?

Eurocontrol has been working closely with all 41 of its member states to ensure service. But, of course, they have all had to cut back and what we’re seeing is effectively a night service.

As of mid-March, the majority of our air navigation service providers (ANSPs) had about three months of cash reserves. That’s why we worked together with states to ensure they have funding for another four months beyond that. Our hope is that by September 2020 there will be enough of a recovery in traffic for them to survive.

We are only as strong as the weakest link. If one ANSP fails, then it will affect the whole system and the aviation value chain.  

Why did you decide to assist airlines?

It was apparent that airlines were suffering a meltdown in bookings before the entire system more or less went into lockdown. There were flights with very few people on them, partly because airlines were at this stage still trying to preserve their slots at key airports.

But they were losing money fast. As I mentioned, there is just no cash in the system. We organized a payment deferral scheme, worth about €1.1 billion, so airlines don’t have to give our ANSPs any money for four months, from March to June, inclusive. They don’t have to start paying these fees back until November 2020.

This affects the ANSPs too, which is why we came up with the second phase of the plan to provide them with a loan to see them through.

The simple fact is airlines couldn’t pay even if we demanded it. And it was better to have a structured process in place than a complete collapse of the system. Everyone will have to take some pain as a result of the crisis. But it is critical that we support and not cannibalize each other.

The Network Manager will become extremely important and help Europe move toward a seamless, digital sky.

Are there any lessons for ATM to learn from the crisis?

I think the main lesson we have learned is that ATM is not scalable. We can’t easily scale up or down according to demand because too many of the overheads are fixed for a number of years.

In 2018, the network was being overloaded and in 2019 we took some drastic measures to keep traffic flowing, such as moving flights into Poland from Germany. Now, we have just 10% of those flights but it has been difficult to scale down in any meaningful way in such a short space of time.

That has consequences for the Single European Sky. There has been some excellent work on the project in terms of bringing down cost and harmonization, but we have not seen any real consolidation of service.

To react quicker and to be scalable to a degree, the Network Manager in Europe will have a much bigger role to play. That should bring the seamless European sky a little closer.  

How difficult will be the industry restart be, particularly as individual nations are at different points in the crisis?

It’s going to be a lot tougher and slower than we imagined at first and we will not see a V-shaped bounce back. The key is that it must be a coordinated restart. There must be agreement on social distancing, temperature checks, crew licensing and so forth. Otherwise, we will have a haphazard and disjointed restart that will be reflected in weaker demand.

We estimate that if the restart is coordinated then we will get to an appropriate level of capacity in September. But if we fail to reach agreement then demand and capacity will suffer and be some 50% lower than possible at the end of the year.

The Network Manager will issue updates to its recovery plan on a weekly basis so we achieve a safe and smooth recovery phase for all operational stakeholders. This will allow network actors to ramp up activities progressively as traffic returns.

But it won’t be easy. All our 41 jurisdictions value their decision-making freedom and data privacy and so we are operating with some significant constraints. Other parts of the world will find it easier to restart than Europe.

€1.1bn- Eurocontrol organized a payment deferral scheme from March to June, worth about €1.1 billion, so airlines don’t have to give ANSPs any money for four months

Are you concerned countries would see even greater value in maintaining their own services?

Nothing good will happen if we don’t have a network that is being managed properly. We are seeing some states making their own rules, but I believe all will start to see the value and the economic power in ensuring the overall network is strong. The Network Manager will become extremely important and help Europe move toward a seamless, digital sky.

All partners in the aviation value chain face higher costs even though revenues will remain low. Are ATM charges a battle waiting to happen or can we avoid it? We are not going to go back to the same industry. This will not be a resumption of business as usual.

Already we have seen some governments provide significant bailouts of airlines because it is not fair to have airlines pay for what is essentially a force majeure. Doubtless there will be many airline casualties too.

The airline landscape will therefore change. But we need to find a way to get back to a level playing field. If we don’t have a competitive industry, then prices go up and demand will fall.  To begin with, fares and charges will be kept low as the industry attempts to stimulate demand. But capacity will be kept in check by the airlines and costs will be high for all partners. Inevitably, prices will go up and demand could suffer as a result.

So, we all have to remember to be competitive. If we can do that then the conversation about charges will not hamper the industry.

90%- There was a 90% reduction in European air traffic across the network at the worst point of the crisis

Will any particular technologies or strategies jump to the fore or will the industry be stuck in survival mode for several years yet?

Three things jump to mind. The first is a greater emphasis on virtual centers. These virtual centers could have an enormous impact on service capability while lowering costs. And the systems are open, which brings all manner of benefits and opportunities.

The second is Free Route Airspace (FRA). If we can get FRA throughout Europe, then effectively have a seamless sky. We have managed to implement it in certain areas already, but the real value of FRA is having it across the entire system.

The third is dynamic airspace configuration. That will give us the flexibility to handle traffic demand in the most effective way.