Article

"It's in all of our interests that we accelerate investments in European Air Traffic Management"

Thomas Reynaert

Thomas Reynaert, Managing Director of the Airlines for Europe trade association, believes that European Union governments need to invest more in ATM modernisation.

What have been the lessons of the COVID recovery process in terms of European aviation?

It is a very complex issue. COVID has been the worst crisis we’ve ever seen in aviation though we are obviously in a much better place than we were months ago.

I hope that the worst is behind us. We don’t know what autumn and winter will bring, because winter typically seems to come with a new variant. I hope we don’t see that but it’s too early to tell. We’ve always known that high vaccination rates will help slow down the community spread, and we have been pressing for accelerated vaccinations in Europe. Despite this, Europe remains one of the worst affected regions globally when it comes to COVID-19 impact and travel restrictions in particular.

So we have a lot of catching up to do and the current forecasts suggest it will be the end of 2024 or the start of 2025 before we get back to 2019 travel levels. And, of course, the war in Ukraine is yet another external factor impacting the road to recovery, though not to the same extent as COVID-19.

Until the Ukraine war broke out, we were very optimistic about this year’s recovery. We have seen the positive impact of the digital COVID-19 certificate system and had hoped that an expansion of that tool would continue to help us through the recovery. Unfortunately, we’ve seen that with the outbreak of the Omicron variant, too many governments had kneejerk reactions – closing borders or making it more difficult to travel instead. We now know that such measures have proven to be ineffective at reducing infection rates. In fact, the travel restrictions put in place in Europe were not effective at all. I hope that with the next variant national governments will have learnt their lessons.

There is significant pent-up demand for travel, especially people who want to reunite with friends and family. And businesses are eager to resume face-to-face meetings. It’s not true that businesspeople no longer want to travel. Yes, we know now that good broadband connections can facilitate virtual meetings – but they will never be able to replace faceto- face meetings with customers.

The war in Ukraine has also presented Europe’s airlines with a major challenge

The war in Ukraine has had yet another impact on air travel – not just on flights from Russia and Ukraine where those airspaces have been closed to our members. This is where EUROCONTROL and the Network Manager have played important roles to coordinate and shift the flow of traffic around the inaccessible airspace.

Some carriers are more affected than others. Those providing long-haul services to Asia are facing longer routings, from 90 minutes to five hours depending on your departure airport. This of course causes inefficiencies and environmental consequences which is something we hate to see.

It is impossible to predict how this is going to evolve, but with the cooperation of EUROCONTROL it will be extremely important to make sure that we can continue to operate around the closed airspace.

The big challenge of sustainable aviation is not going away. It was there before COVID-19 and will remain with us for many years to come.

Have we taken the opportunity that COVID has given us to reform the European ATM system so we don’t see again the disruptions and delays that hampered the industry in 2018 and 2019?

COVID has given air navigation service providers (ANSPs) time to solve some of the huge capacity issues in the network, to either continue with investments or accelerate them. Sadly, we see that some countries have not taken this opportunity, and we are concerned that capacity levels will not be able to match any rapid acceleration of traffic.

We have not seen enough investments from an ANSP perspective. Some ANSPs don’t understand the need for increased cost-efficiency of the network and want to, instead, focus on recuperating their revenue losses. For this reason we are pushing for a different economic regulation and a more appropriate ATM financing system.

It is not only ANSPs, but all types of airline suppliers who are trying to charge us more than before the pandemic. So, this is not the only cost issue, but most importantly, it is the lack of efficiency and the lack of capacity in the network. We have signalled these concerns at the Network Management Board several times and to individual ANSPs frequently. And we continue to ask ANSPs and their governments to accelerate investment in the network so they can accommodate growth.

ANSPs will argue they are under contradictory pressures from airlines to reduce charges while carrying on with their investment strategies. And many of them are caught in the middle between these two.

These pressures are not new. One of the things we need to look at is financing the ANSPs. I think the current European regulation doesn’t allow for the proper cost-efficient financing of the network. It’s in all of our interests that we accelerate investments along the lines of the European Airspace Architecture Study and within the policy framework of SES 2+.

We have not made much progress with this under the French presidency and we are now looking to the Czech presidency in the second half of the year to make progress on SES 2+; we need a future-proofed regulatory framework to allow for further investments.

Much has already been done, such as free route airspace. But some countries, like France, are lagging behind and this has an impact on European traffic flows throughout the continent. I think it’s also the responsibility of the national governments to make it work, as ANSPs need to get the proper support from their respective Member States. The money shouldn’t only come from airlines. Because of the COVID-19 crisis in the aviation ecosystem, other sectors, such as airports, have been able to get funding from governments.

One of the key challenges for EUROCONTROL is to help find an optimal path between two mutually contradictory requirements of the aviation systems: to expand connectivity and frequencies while reducing CO₂ emissions. Can we do this in the short term?

Our Destination 2050 roadmap has been written with the support of airports, ANSPs, regional airlines and manufacturers. We can have both growth and fewer emissions if we put in place a number of measures according to this roadmap. The biggest aspect of this is technology: more efficient engines, lighter aircraft and a more efficient ATM system, in addition to economic measures and the SES.

ATM accounts for between six and 10% of CO2 emissions. It’s relatively low-hanging fruit because we’re talking about technologies that are already on the table. But we need political will to implement them.

We want ANSPs and ATM players to put into practice a seamless European Sky which will allow us to fly in a much more cost-efficient manner, burning less fuel and thereby producing fewer (CO2) emissions. As long as the political steps are not taken we will continue to have a problem.

We will get to net zero by 2050. That is a commitment that the entire European aviation ecosystem has made through Destination 2050 and there is really no way back. But governments and ANSPs will need to do their part to create a regulatory framework which allows us to reduce CO2 emissions and continue to have growth. I think that with the measures we are proposing, we can guarantee connectivity at an affordable price for the customer.

"We will get to net zero by 2050. That is a commitment that the entire European aviation ecosystem has made through Destination 2050 and there is really no way back"

What particular SES procedures or technologies will give you that six or 10% improvement, if we are already flying optimum levels of horizontal efficiency through the core traffic areas of Europe?

We need a bit of history here. Flying has evolved from following ground-based navigational aids to using satellite-based navigation – the performance measurements regarding flight efficiency have not followed that evolution. So while we can plan optimum trajectories (even taking into account restrictions) we are judged against outdated principles (great circle distance) or external assumptions based on incomplete information. Thus, this paints a skewed picture of the actual emission situation.

As a result we need: a regulation which is based on airline trajectories as the target to be achieved – supported by the NM and ANSPs; European free route airspace, advanced flexible use of airspace (or better no military restricted areas) and common en-route ATCO licenses implemented (as recommended in the Wise Persons Group report). Obviously, digitalisation, interoperability, data sharing and the respective change management are included.

Most of these points will ensure that optimum 4D trajectories can be planned and flown. The ATCO licenses take care of the fact that a shift of traffic across any boundary (FIR or sector) does not increase the number of flights in the network – only their geographical location. If we can ensure that ATCOs can mirror this traffic shift we kill two birds with one stone: decrease emissions while increasing efficiency.

Are you optimistic we will be able to reach zero CO₂ emissions by 2050?

Absolutely. Destination 2050 has shown how to reduce CO2 emissions but we need urgent action now.

COVID-19, travel restrictions and the crisis it created for our sector caused a domino effect throughout the European aviation ecosystem. It showed us that it’s better to work together. I believe there’s a new wind blowing through the ANSP landscape in Europe right now and some ANSPs are seeing us as customers and looking to find ways how to better serve us. They realise it’s a win-win situation. So yes, I am optimistic.

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