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COVID-19 has radically changed how we understand our world and our ability to move freely around it

Eamonn Brennan

"COVID-19 has been an unprecedented calamity for European aviation and its effects will be with us for many years to come."

In 2019, over 11 million flights operated inside Europe, carrying over 2.4 billion passengers. So far in 2020, we have seen just over 4 million flights and as many as 1 billion fewer individual journeys. Tens of thousands of jobs have already been lost and an estimated six million more remain at risk; the overall loss to the aviation industry this year alone has been estimated at over €140 billion.

The pandemic has devastated our industry and the people who work in it; trying to ride it out is not an option. In order to survive, we need to take decisive and radical steps to mitigate the immediate impacts while putting in place the building blocks for a more robust and adaptable post-COVID aviation system.

Decisive financial support

When the COVID crisis hit in March and faced with collapsing traffic levels and a catastrophic loss of liquidity in the system, EUROCONTROL reacted swiftly to support the European aviation ecosystem. With flights being cancelled and passengers unable to fly, by the end of the month it was already clear that the airlines were suffering a severe cashflow problem. In early April, the EUROCONTROL Member States took a major decision to defer up to €1.1 billion of route charges, easing the airlines’ immediate liquidity burden.

And by June, EUROCONTROL reached an agreement with a major consortium of international banks to put in place a massive loan facility of €1.3 billion to support the air navigation service providers (ANSPs) whose revenues have been decimated by the traffic collapse. Securing a loan of this size, especially given challenging market conditions, was far from simple but it provided badly needed liquidity for many ANSPs and enabled them to continue to play their essential role in keeping the skies safe and operational.

Internally, EUROCONTROL has also implemented a number of emergency actions to reduce immediately costs and prioritise our activities going forward to concentrate on those that will best help our stakeholders – the airlines, airports, ANSPs, and our States – to survive the pandemic and then to recover – in fact, not just recover, but build back better.

Aauthoritative data reporting on the crisis and the recovery

Reliable facts are essential for decision-making in a crisis, and since the start of the pandemic, EUROCONTROL has massively ramped up its reporting and analysis, releasing our unique data to all aviation actors, from industry leaders to aviation stakeholders, press and public. Since the start of the crisis, we have released over 1,500 communications reporting on different aspects of the crisis with around 20 million views of our press releases, weekly status reports, animations, dashboards, tweets and other social media posts.

Key new weekly products like the Comprehensive Assessment, providing a regular snapshot of the challenges faced by the network, or the EUROCONTROL Network Manager Network Recovery Plan, which reflects a huge coordination effort by the EUROCONTROL Network Manager and its partners to balance capacity at airports and in airspace with airline demand, have proven essential for operational stakeholders as they plan their recovery. These have been invaluable in putting European aviation back on its feet and enabling a smooth recovery from the low point of April, with over 95% of traffic down, to a summer with traffic having recovered to around 50% of 2019 levels – an increase achieved with almost no delays and few surprises. This represents an impressive achievement, correctly identifying where the demand for traffic would be and what impact this would have on airports and ANSPs so that they could plan accordingly.

Our analysis and insights into the progress of the impact of the pandemic have proven reliable and accurate, with our Draft Traffic Scenarios estimating very accurately the recovery of traffic in light of demand and changing restrictions.

COVID-19

COVID-19 impact on the European air traffic network

Explore our COVID-19-related reports, analyses and forecasts. 

These have been complemented by new interactive dashboards providing very detailed information on a daily basis at country, ACC, airport or airline level.

EUROCONTROL Draft Traffic Scenarios - 14 September 2020 (base year 2019/2020)

Keeping the network running while it recovered

Our essential operational activities have continued in the EUROCONTROL Network Manager and at our Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre despite challenging conditions, with all the vital health and safety measures imposed by the pandemic to reorganise rosters so that business continuity was always maintained. This enabled us, even during the worst of the crisis, to keep the network running so that essential flights, such as cargo and repatriation flights, could continue safely. The European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell (EACCC), co-chaired by the European Commission and by EUROCONTROL as Network Manager, has worked hard to improve coordination in much-needed areas, such as harmonising NOTAMS; making the rules for cargo flights (and their crews) more practical and consistent; and achieving greater clarity and consistency on establishing the health procedures to be applied at airports and in aircraft. EASA was a key part of this work and we fully support their initiatives.

The pandemic – Where do we go from here?

EUROCONTROL and our aviation partners have worked really hard to enable a smooth recovery. However despite research such as the one from IATA showing the very limited risk of in-flight transmission, the situation since the summer has shown that passenger confidence is heavily dependent on State decision-making. Faced with ever-changing colour codes for destinations and the risk of quarantine going out or returning, many have opted to stay at home. Put simply, quarantines are the kiss of death for our industry.

Unfortunately, States have responded to a resurgence in the pandemic by imposing a bewildering and rapidly changing set of travel restrictions. I welcome the work of the European Commission in pushing for more coordination and the decision by the European Council to put in place a common map identifying the level of risk across the Continent. This is vitally needed, both for greater understanding and acceptance of restrictions by the public and also for the aviation industry, which is finding it increasingly difficult to plan ahead. It’s a start but will not be enough to create the environment in which people wish to travel and aviation can meet those needs.

We also need greater coordination in the approach taken by States to testing – both before and after travel. Greater availability and use of testing would really help to make travel possible for people who have a pressing need to travel but who are prevented from doing so by the need to quarantine either in the destination country or on their return. I hope that these are areas that will be further examined by the European Council in the coming weeks.

Building back better

COVID-19 has been an unprecedented calamity for European aviation and its effects will be with us for many years to come. But at the same time, I firmly believe it represents an unprecedented opportunity for all aviation actors to work together to make our industry better, to tackle the big, longer-term issues now, even while the crisis is continuing.

Central to this is the leadership of the European Commission, which has worked with everyone in aviation to put on the table proposals to reform the Single European Sky. These proposals have the potential to be a game changer in terms of helping European aviation to build back better. A vital part of that is making the Performance Scheme much stronger with improved and more meaningful incentives to encourage States and ANSPs to do what is best for the whole industry in the long term.

It is also the right moment to refocus research, to achieve a stepwise improvement ahead of the full return of traffic. Research must be focused on supporting the recovery and providing long-term resilience, making ATM more scalable and responsive. The Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda (SRIA) has huge potential to harness the potential of new technologies – exciting new ideas like Innovation Labs that bring innovation closer to the end user which Laurent Renou talks about in this magazine and tighten the feedback loop with those who will actually operate the innovations.

Another promising development is the evolution of the SESAR Deployment Manager into the Infrastructure Manager, which will massively improve feedback between operations, implementation and research. These better linkages will also be reflected in the work by EUROCONTROL to partner airspace users, airport operators and ANSPs, deploy solutions in tandem, and strengthen working relationships between the EUROCONTROL Network Manager, the SESAR Joint Undertaking and operational stakeholders.

As the recovery continues, the focus will increasingly be placed on sustainability in support of the European Green Deal. This summer, we have seen more efficient flights – shorter routes with better vertical profiles. At the same time, delays have been almost eliminated (less than a second of en-route delay per flight compared with 2½ minutes last year). The challenge facing us is how to make sure that we do not lose all the cost and environmental benefits we have seen this summer. We need to avoid returning to the capacity crunch expected before COVID-19 – and to make more efficient flights the ‘new normal’.

At the same time, we will go on working with our partners across the industry and internationally to help drive the green transition. We are very focused on ensuring that Sustainable Aviation Fuel can be adopted swiftly and smoothly and that the investments will be there to ensure that a new generation of airframes can be smoothly integrated into the overall aviation system.

2020 has painfully demonstrated that a virus can radically change the world we live in, and the industry we believe in. While the situation today remains very difficult, as I look around, everywhere I see huge efforts to manage and mitigate the pandemic together; we need to carry that optimism forward and use it to make the big decisions to ensure that our industry can come out of this crisis more sustainable and more resilient, more able to confront the challenges of the post-COVID world.

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