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From crisis to continuity: EUROCONTROL's evolving role in aviation crisis management

Steven Moore

The Agency and its partners have been developing new tools and procedures to ensure that all aviation stakeholders will be better prepared to manage the next crisis, says Steven Moore, Head of ATM Network Operations at EUROCONTROL.

Europe’s citizens rely on a highly complex aviation ecosystem for the safe transport of people and essential cargo.

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."

"EUROCONTROL's role as an 'honest broker' of crisis information is a relatively new one but it has become a pivotal one for Europe's entire aviation sector"

Then, when the Omicron wave arrived in November 2021, a new set of challenges emerged as different States applied different travel restrictions.

"There was much more demand in the system; there were lockdowns in various countries around Christmas and the New Year and there were various travel restrictions, with paperwork and testing required. At times there were areas where the demand was greater than the capacity," said Steven Moore. "Demand often bled away as airlines had to reduce their schedules as a result of lockdowns or the increased paperwork requirements."

The aftershocks of COVID continue to this day. ANSPs are still recovering from the pandemic as they work to increase their controller-training and roll out new systems, so when demand exceeds 2019 levels, which it does regularly, capacity continues to remain constrained. Traffic at the end of 2022 was around 85% of 2019 levels, but delays were also at 85% at 2019 levels.

"We continue to run the weekly conferences and we still find demand in excess of capacity," said Steven Moore. "But I think it's very clear there would have been much more confusion and less co-ordination without the actions of the EACCC and its network and many more delays in the recovery without the enlarged NDOP meetings running weekly with critical information sharing."

For airports, this new level of information sharing has proved particularly important. Via the weekly meetings, Europe's airports now have a clearer view on likely demand over the next week or so and a longer term view on the strength of the recovery, which has allowed them to allocate resources accordingly. But during the recovery phase of the COVID pandemic not all airports had the resources available or sufficient belief in the more optimistic forecasts of airline recovery coming out of the weekly meetings and consequently ended up with long queues airside and landside with not enough ground handling staff available.

Then in February 2022, with the invasion of Ukraine, another crisis hit the network. The closure of Ukraine-Belarus-Russian airspace reduced potential network airspace capacity by 20% and pushed traffic flows south and west, increasing flight numbers by more than 100% over 2019 levels in some localised areas, a complex picture made more complex still by significantly increased military activity.

But by the start of 2022 the role of EACCC had become more clearly defined: it was there to manage the initial crisis but beyond that first shock NM and stakeholders would use the NDOP communications channels developed during COVID to collaboratively balance demand and capacity.

So although the cell was activated on the invasion of Ukraine it only remained active for two weeks.

"The focus of how NM is involved in a crisis has changed from EACCC's inception to today," said Steven Moore. "Now it is activated for a short period to gather and share information, to bring the relevant aviation stakeholders together to share and discuss. But thereafter, there's a mechanism available to NM, as the trusted broker, to work with the directors of ANSP operations, airlines and airports to bring them together to share information to ensure the capacity is available wherever possible for the demand. And that means dealing with the initial communication and collaboration around a crisis, be it a loss of airspace due to military activity or a volcanic eruption in exactly the same way."

Preparing for the next volcanic eruption, cyber attack or pandemic

The EACCC and partners run regular exercises to prepare the network for the next crisis: a volcanic eruption, a terrorist incident, a pandemic or a cyber attack which would take out the entire communications network. Lessons from the exercises are shared among stakeholders with the understanding that each crisis is different and will always require tactical management because there will inevitably be unforeseen challenges.

But the industry has taken to heart the lessons of that first Icelandic volcano crisis.

EACCC stakeholders partake in annual ash-crisis simulations as part of the ICAO Volcex programme and have developed a comprehensive reaction plan. The EACCC would be activated as soon as immediate alert was raised – all volcanic activity from potential sources is now monitored – with communications and information-sharing to the relevant stakeholders.

Airlines now have their own strategic risk assessment procedures in place, but in the event of a volcanic eruption, airspace would remain open across all Member States of EUROCONTROL and the critical information around the forecast location, concentration and actual reports are available and disseminated to allow airlines to make the risk-based assessment as to where and when to fly. NM has new tools available to support these decisions. For example, EUROCONTROL has developed the EVITA collaborative online tool which allows users to visualise the impact of a volcanic ash crisis on air traffic and on the available air traffic network capacity in Europe. In the event of another crisis the tool will display to users:

  • ash concentration data received from VAAC London or VAAC Toulouse on the NOP Portal map;
  • the coordinates of danger areas, as declared by States via NOTAM, on the NOP Portal map;
  • local areas defined by aircraft operators;
  • and detect sectors, aerodromes and flights impacted by either ash concentration data or danger areas, or areas locally defined by aircraft operators.

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