Network Operations Recovery Plan creates new levels of cooperation among stakeholders

Iacopo Prissinotti

New relationships have been forged and network performance structural weaknesses identified as part of the EUROCONTROL Network Manager’s work to develop a unifying crisis management and recovery strategy for European aviation, explains Iacopo Prissinotti, Director of EUROCONTROL’s Network Management (NM) Directorate.

Uncertainty is one of aviation’s greatest challenges. For Europe’s airlines, airports and air navigation service providers (ANSPs), whose operations rely on high levels of predictability for demand and capacity planning, it was becoming clear during the last few months of 2019 that the market had pivoted.

Passenger numbers, measured year over year, were starting to decline. Economies were faltering. And then in March 2020 the pandemic swept across the continent. For Europe’s aviation industry this was a new world of unprecedented uncertainty, where the fundamentals of demand and supply for aviation services no longer seemed to apply. Flights dropped to 10% of their predicted throughput and ANSPs and airports were confronted with the prospect of having to shut down frontline services if contagion spread through their operating centres.

The EUROCONTROL Network Directors of Operations Group (NDOP) meeting on 17 March 2020 agreed that the only way the industry could manage the crisis and then plan a coordinated recovery would be to work collectively to share data on airline schedules and capacity. It developed a new concept for initially a Business Continuity and afterwards a Recovery Plan, which included weekly conference calls sharing consolidated information on expected traffic and capacity delivery levels for the ensuing four weeks, extended afterwards to six weeks.

“We started to develop this weekly rolling plan, gathering information from all the relevant stakeholders so ANSPs and airports could get a consolidated view of what the major airlines planned to do in terms of flights,” says Iacopo Prissinotti, Director of EUROCONTROL’s Network Management (NM) Directorate. “If they had tried to do this individually it would have taken a massive, confusing and uncoordinated effort because many would not have had the resources. When there is a huge amount of volatility you need to match airspace and airport capacity with demand. With traffic levels 80% lower than normal, in theory this should not be a problem – but if the epidemic hits an air traffic control (ATC) centre it could mean closing airspace. So one of the most important attributes of the plan was service continuity.”

“We started to develop this weekly rolling plan, gathering information from all the relevant stakeholders so ANSPs and airports could get a consolidated view of what the major airlines planned to do in terms of flights.”

At a time of continued uncertainty, the NOP 2020 Recovery Plan was a vital coordination and anticipation initiative that has provided aviation’s key actors with the global view they need to plan effectively. Further building on this positive experience, the NDOP agreed that the NM would transit from the Recovery Plan into building a NOP Rolling Seasonal Plan, starting 23 October 2020, providing essential continuity of coordinated information to allow effective planning and decision making for all aviation stakeholders. The NOP Rolling Seasonal Plan will be updated weekly, focusing on operational planning six weeks ahead and on managing the execution and implementation of the five-year Network Operations Plan (NOP).

“It was an unprecedented effort by all stakeholders,” says Razvan Bucuroiu, Head of Airspace and Capacity Division/Acting Head of Operations Planning Unit at EUROCONTROL’s Network Management Directorate. “We were coordinating with and receiving information from 140 airports, 68 en-route ATC units and 320 airlines, consolidating information on flight schedules and capacity to provide a traffic and capacity outlook. Safety, military and major events planning information was also updated weekly. We were the only source who could have provided this consolidated information.”

For the NM, it was a Herculean effort. To support this effort NM also monitored an average of 700 to 800 NOTAMs a day, each of which had an impact on the European air traffic situation. This took at least one major task away from the beleaguered airlines and meant all stakeholders could plan their crisis management and recovery operations on the basis of consolidated and trustworthy data. NM staff also swiftly developed “best-practice” procedures for ATC staff to work safely, so new work practices could be included in crisis management plans. ANSPs faced critical staffing issues: flight numbers may have been reduced by more than 50% but that did not mean controller numbers could be reduced by the same amount. Demand continued to be volatile and ANSPs had to build in capacity for sudden surges. Included in the NM’s recovery plan was a requirement to identify where and how capacity could be added into the system as the recovery slowly gained hold.

After just a few weeks the plan allowed every stakeholder to understand near-term traffic demand which allowed for more detailed resource planning. For ANSPs it meant they could introduce COVID-19 protection measures based on more accurate estimates of how many controllers would be working and which sectors would be open. Very quickly, NM began analysing the data in a more systematic way to provide even more accurate local traffic predictions.

“We have saved 26,000 nautical miles on improved trajectories as a result of improved planning.”

“When building our weekly traffic outlook we started seeing how the restrictions placed by each State – such as quarantine requirements or cancelled destinations – affected the network and we built a probability matrix between countries so we could assess what the probability level was for flights to happen or not,” says Razvan Bucuroiu. NM also provided individual ANSPs and airports with large files of regional traffic data to assist in their own recovery plans – this had a doubly beneficial impact because it meant NM had more accurate understanding of local conditions once these recovery plans were fed back into its system.

Helping airports plan their recovery

Study by EUROCONTROL and partners highlights actions to improve performance when implementing COVID-19 measures.

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“Airports had slots which hadn’t been removed from the slot coordination system but we were able to get information from airlines about which slots would be cancelled and pass this back to the airports,” says Steven Moore, Head of ATM Network Operations Division, Network Manager Directorate. “We commissioned a study from the Airport Research Centre in collaboration with ACI EUROPE and other partners into turnaround times and the effect of COVID on airports’ airside and landside operations (see Table) which helped people to better understand the impact of pandemic measures on, in particular, passenger journey time, terminal throughput and boarding gate processing capacity.”

A few weeks into the crisis, NM team began to work on a coordinated recovery plan and tie in some of the longer-term strategic network improvement objectives with the shortterm recovery actions. The latter were championed by the operational staff at the NM Operations Centre who worked tirelessly in supporting ANSPs, airlines, airports and the military on a day-to-day basis from pre-tactical planning, through operational delivery, to post-operations performance analysis.

“We had defined two major objectives – keep delays as low as possible and give airlines the best trajectories possible,” says Iacopo Prissinotti. “We relaxed 1,200 Route Availability Document (RAD) restrictions and will continue this relaxation until April next year and this will allow for continuous improvements in network performance. In the meantime, we improved our communications with State organisations and worked out how we could all work more closely together. We all agreed that the weekly coordinated conference calls on Monday afternoons will continue even after the recovery because they help us solve some immediate issues very quickly. This will eventually boost the capacity of the entire system via our Operational Excellence programme.”

This programme is focused on harmonising operational procedures, including Letters of Agreement, flight planning, air traffic flow management, airspace management and system support to reduce controller workload and harmonise operations in neighbouring centres.

“We have saved 26,000 nautical miles on improved trajectories as a result of improved planning,” says Steven Moore. “We now need a coordinated plan to prepare for the major recovery once there is a vaccine.”

Planning the recovery is a complex task and will require further and deeper stakeholder coordination. For example, controllers will have temporarily lost some degree of skill at handling complex traffic loads and it will take time to ramp up capacity levels to pre-COVID-19 performance.

But the dramatic fall in traffic numbers has given EUROCONTROL NM experts a clear view of some of the dynamic forces acting on the network. “As soon as traffic reaches 70% to 80% of 2019 levels I suspect we will start to see structural issues in the network start to emerge and impact overall performance,” says Razvan Bucuroiu.

“As soon as traffic reaches 70% to 80% of 2019 levels I suspect we will start to see structural issues in the network start to emerge and impact overall performance.”

It has become clear that a network operating close to its capacity has a very different environmental performance to a network where traffic levels are much reduced – adding just one or two flights to a constrained network increases CO2 emissions over a very wide area. So NM managers are using the breathing space which the pandemic has delivered to rethink the way capacity can be managed, via the Operational Excellence programme, so a much more coordinated approach to capacity management can be developed among all stakeholders. For example, many of the previous restrictions which ANSPs regularly built into the system can now identified as not being required.

“It is also clear that ANSPs have not stopped doing good things during the crisis; we have been working with central European ANSPs to continue to build cross-border free-route airspace procedures and to plan for other major changes at network and local level,” says Razvan Bucuroiu, “and we will soon add new cross-border free route airspace (FRA) initiatives to that list with Slovakia joining the South East Europe (SEE) FRA initiative and later on Poland. Further significant efforts are made in Central Europe with the Functional Airspace Block Central Europe (FABCE). DSNA colleagues are continuing to work on bringing free route operations into service at the Brest and Bordeaux centres, as well as our Swiss, German, Spanish and UK colleagues.”

One vital outcome of the plan has been the development of new levels of trust between NM and stakeholders. NM had previously developed an internal training scheme to ensure each member of staff recognised the role of the organisation within the overall aviation value chain – supporting stakeholders, not dictating, and empowering ANSPs to make decisions based on the best available data.

Airlines and airports have also been brought closer to NM; we have been able to use this crisis to fix issues as datalink usage, working individually with airlines to ensure avionics are compatible and datalink is used on a more regular basis, for example,” says Iacopo Prissinotti. “This cooperation will stand us in good stead for the future, allowing us to fully align operations, technology and research & development to deliver a fully scalable ATM system.”

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