In June 2019, European air traffic control had its busiest day ever, handling almost 38,000 flights. The system was almost maxed out and delays occurred.

Summer 2022 saw 30,000 flights at its peak and yet delays were up for a variety of reasons, including lack of airport capacity. Moreover, if the Ukraine situation remains the same, summer 2023 will see traffic at 100% of 2019 levels while airspace capacity lingers at just 80%.

These were the headline numbers from a session on European ATM at the Wings of Change Europe conference in Istanbul.

A lively debate, hosted by Eamonn Brennan, Director General of Eurocontrol, first explored some of the difficulties caused by the loss of airspace over Ukraine and the Russian Federation.

Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey were all coping with far larger volumes of traffic because flights have been routed south. Fortunately, traffic between Asia and Europe is substantially down because China continues to employ lockdowns to prevent the spread of COVID.

But it was noted that when Chinese traffic returns, Chinese carriers will have a big advantage as they can still use Russian Federation airspace. Flying time will be reduced significantly as, presumably, will costs and fares. It could create an uneven playing field in a critical part of the market for many airlines.

Naturally, talk soon turned to the Single European Sky (SES), or rather the lack of it. It was agreed that SES will more likely become a digital European sky. SESAR has 106 improvement projects in its catalog with dozens more on the way. The issue was implementation speed. Functional airspace blocks (FABs) haven’t really delivered the acceleration expected largely because monopolies collaborating still act like monopolies. A more competitive environment would foster innovation.

Nevertheless, the plus points were highlighted, including collaborative decision making, free route airspace, and the growing influence of the Network Manager.

System interoperability will be the key to a more efficient airspace and that is improving with Dutch air navigation service provider (ANSP), LVNL, operating the same system as Germany, Poland, and Spain, among others.

Drones and eVTOLs (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) were also discussed and the role ANSPs should play in their management. Though the integration of these small, electric-powered vehicles shouldn’t cause an issue, it has to be controlled. ANSPs were best placed to at least advise on that control as it was imperative that their clients—the airlines—are unaffected in terms of safety and efficiency.


The Panel

Eamonn Brennan, Director General, Eurocontrol (Moderator)

Andreas Boschen, Executive Director, SESAR 3JU

Michiel van Dorst, CEO LVNL, Chair CANSO CEO Committee

Alessio Quaranta, Director General, ENAC

Marcus Schnabel, SVP, Flight/Ground Operations & Security, Lufthansa Group


Credit | iStock