But over the last few years it has become increasingly clear just how vulnerable this ecosystem is to unforeseen disruptive events which can suddenly shut airports and airspace, threatening vital services. A global pandemic. An erupting volcano spreading a blanket of ash across parts of the continent. A war. Descending space debris. They all pose unique challenges not just to ensuring the safety and comfort of passengers and citizens on the ground, but also to the aviation industry as it seeks to calculate the most appropriate responses. Do we have to ground our entire fleet or can the crisis be contained more locally? How can we get the most accurate and up-to-date information from colleagues on which we can base our recovery decisions? What will traffic be in two weeks’ time – so we can allocate the right level of resources?
EUROCONTROL's role as an "honest broker" of crisis information is a relatively new one but, in these volatile times, it has become a pivotal one for Europe's entire aviation sector.
"Before 2010 and the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull there was no full European-wide aviation crisis management and communication mechanism," said Steven Moore, Head of ATM Network Operations at EUROCONTROL. "There were so many different stakeholders involved and it ended up being a communications nightmare with everyone making their own uncoordinated decisions. So the European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell (EACCC) was created to ensure clarity and some consistency."
Airspace in the north-west area of Europe was closed for 10 days as a result of the volcanic eruption, which challenged aviation’s safety community as never before. New metrics had to be developed to understand the level of threat involved and new ways found of communicating and coordinating with colleagues. Out of that was born the framework for managing crises – and an understanding on where the limits were to data-sharing and decision-making, which would always have to remain with States.
But since Eyjafjallajökull – and especially since the COVID pandemic – the role of the crisis cell and the Network Manager (NM) has evolved to provide a more effective service for all stakeholders.
"What changed in COVID was the need to share information on a much more consistent and confidential level," said Steven Moore. "In one sense the EACCC is primarily a vehicle to handle communication and information sharing across all actors in the aviation industry during times of crisis. It does not take decisions. It is co-chaired by EUROCONTROL NM and the European Commission and has many rules and regulations around what it can and can't do."
As successive waves of pandemic hit the continent, the roles of the EACCC and NM had to adapt to take account of each new challenge. The EACCC was launched to deal with a short-term crisis but during the pandemic remained activated for 18 months.
For the first four to six weeks of COVID and the lockdowns, the essential task was to share as much information as possible via the Network Directors of Operations (NDOPs) and the airlines so air navigation service providers (ANSPs) could de-risk their operations by reducing staff numbers (and therefore the threat of infections) to an optimal level. Airlines entered signed non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) with NM to share day-by-day, minute-by-minute their schedules for the next four weeks – later extended to six. Enlarged NDOP meetings were established weekly and in preparation of the plans NM also collated sector opening plans from the ANSPs so capacity levels could be balanced, as far as possible, with traffic demand, and shared with other stakeholders such as airports, who became fully integrated into the planning cycle. These regular NDOP conference calls were scheduled for every Monday and continue to this day.
As the pandemic went on, there was a new imperative – to ensure the network could provide enough capacity for the transport of vaccines, personal protection equipment and medical supplies. Pre-2019 traffic patterns disappeared and as restrictions were lifted and capacity had to be added into the system in a structured and coordinated way to meet the sudden demands. "At the nadir of that first lockdown we were down to just under 2,200 flights a day in April 2020," said Steven Moore. "And we peaked later that year in August at 18,800 flights in a day."