Steven Moore & Yolanda Portillo

The Network Manager and partner stakeholders made significant improvements in air traffic capacity management last year – the focus is on building on these to manage air traffic in 2024 more effectively and efficiently, report Steven Moore, Head of ATM Network Operations and Yolanda Portillo, Head of the Network Manager Operations Centre at EUROCONTROL.

Preparing the European air traffic management ecosystem for the high summer season is like preparing the theatre for a ballet, though the stakes are, of course, considerably higher.

The number of different actors, their priorities and their challenges, all have to be carefully coordinated and lessons of the last performance integrated into the planning for the next. With summer 2024 fast approaching, planning for the high traffic season has been given a new structure and focus with EUROCONTROL’s Joint Approach programme, which in 2023 delivered new levels of collaboration among all stakeholders, and made network performance improvements which exceeded expectations. This year the process needs to be refined further, so even though more traffic is forecast, the European aviation network should be able to manage the increases while minimising delays and environmental emissions.

Steven Moore

“Last summer was manageable, mainly as a result of the work of stakeholders whose priorities were aligned, as far as possible, to those of the network,”

Steven Moore Head of ATM Network Operations EUROCONTROL

“We saw 7% more traffic but delays per flight were reduced by 18%, not counting weather-related issues. It was the first time the Network Manager had adopted a Joint Approach with C-level representatives of airports, air navigation service providers (ANSPs), airlines and other stakeholders all in the same room. We agreed to focus on four main actions: prioritising the first rotation; disciplined flight plan execution; delivering agreed capacities and taking a realistic approach to scheduling, including turnround times.”

Each action brought its own reward. Prioritising the first rotation brought a 20.4% reduction of first-wave delays in 2023 over 2022; research has shown that a delay of one minute in the first take-off of the day can result in a four-minute delay in the final rotation of the day. Sticking closely to the flight plan reduced unplanned entries into regulated airspace by 7% over the previous year. Delivering agreed capacities delivered a reduction of 6.7% of departure delays as a result of en-route ATFM delays. Realistic scheduling – replacing “hoped- for” with “most probable” turnround times – meant aircraft operators reduced their turnround time excesses by 17.5% over 2022. If an airline schedules an inbound flight to arrive at 1500 and the outbound flight to leave at 1510 that can create major network challenges.

“The campaign brought another benefit,” said Steven Moore. “We saw that with all stakeholders working together more closely there was a change in view of how they saw the network. Of course, they continued to prioritise the needs of their own organisation but they could also see the network impact of their decisions. So asking for a short cut, for example, had two impacts on the network: it meant the aircraft was in the wrong place at wrong time, but with the aircraft no longer flying the planned route it meant the planned-for airspace capacity was not being optimally used. Last summer 8% of flights deviated from their flight plan into a regulated area. That’s something we really need to look into. We saw major improvements in 2023 but it was still not good enough.

“Our role is to give more information to the coordinators so they can make more effective decisions based on their commercial priorities and operational possibilities. But this new approach has made a real difference because if an airline has signed up to more disciplined flight plan execution, even if it is running later than planned, keeping the flight plan up to date and not asking for that short cut will have an important effect on the performance of the overall network.”

For 2024, the Joint Approach plan is being refined even further. Now stakeholders have agreed to work towards measurable objectives, perhaps by reducing first-wave delays by an agreed percentage over last year’s performance for example. And a fifth action has been added to the list: improved planning for weather disruptions.

Summer 2023: more traffic, fewer delays but far more disruptive weather

Between June and August 2023 traffic recovered to 93% of 2019 levels increasing 7% over 2022, in line with EUROCONTROL forecasts. ANSPs and NM planned for the impact of the ongoing war in Ukraine and provided extra capacity, flexibility and improved procedures for military operations.

Air Traffic Flow Management (ATFM) delays were similar to the previous summer with 3.8 minutes per flight (3.7 in 2022). But weather delays increased significantly (up 59%), in contrast to delays due to capacity/staffing and other causes, which decreased. Without the weather element, ATFM delays per flight were 18% lower than in 2022.

ATFM delays attributed to adverse weather occurred with particularly high frequency in 2023. In 22 out of the 92 days considered (almost one in four), weather delays represented more than 50% of total ATFM delays. This compares to only seven days in Summer 2022 (one in 13 days). Weather is responsible for around 30% of all delays in Europe.

“Weather is one of the main capacity constraints in our network, as it is difficult to manage because it less predictable and more dynamic,“ she added. “But we want to introduce a collaborative decision-making procedure, to decide and agree with all stakeholders how to manage the movement of traffic around disruptive weather areas. This means developing a kind of re-routing playbook which can be applied in bad weather. And we also want to have a single, more precise and continuous network forecast. At the moment this data is provided only at specific times in the day, for defined periods, but we need this data all the time. The provision of sustainable meteorological data at European level – what we call a “network forecast” – adapted to the aeronautical environment is vital. Accuracy, continuity and granularity of data supply shall be assured.

“The impetus behind this is not just about reducing delays but about bringing more stability into the network, reducing volatility and the threat of sector overloads and unexpected traffic.”

Yolanda Portillo

“We have been implementing cross-border weather procedures for five years, increasing stakeholder involvement along the way, but the idea for next summer is that we need to do something else, to take a more network-centric approach,”

Yolanda Portillo Head of the Network Manager Operations Centre EUROCONTROL

As a first step, NM together with EUROCONTROL's Innovation Hub in Brétigny and Eumetnet are working together to analyse the reliability of current forecasts. This will bring trust, which should reduce the need for ANSPs to apply last-minute regulations due to bad weather. If the new service can guarantee a higher level of accuracy, ANSPs and NM would be able to better plan in advance and reduce the overall impact of convective weather events into the European network.

“We would also like to improve civil-military coordination around cross-border-weather events via the Network Manager Operations Centre, and have more airports involved as well, perhaps even extending these procedures into weather-related events at airports, in the wintertime, as well as the en-route phase during summer,” said Yolanda Portillo.

“The weather problem is really two problems: the accuracy of forecasts and how we are structurally set up,” said Steven Moore.

Many European airports are not set up to operate at full “usual” capacity for prolonged severe winter events. It is therefore important the airport is realistic about how many flights will be impacted. Instead of hoping the weather will not be as bad as predicted, it would be better to be clear about the most probable outcome and plan for that.

"We want to introduce a collaborative decision-making procedure, to decide and agree with all stakeholders how to manage the movement of traffic around disruptive weather areas."

Another NM development for summer 2024 will be to extend the All Together Now campaign, which gives flight dispatchers, pilots, air traffic controllers, flow management positions and airports a clear overview of the processes they should follow to ensure efficient, optimal operations.

The All Together Now campaign for 2024 involves a structural look at the five priorities and at identifying how operational staff from all stakeholder groups can contribute to working towards the network priorities.

This will be a critical part of the network performance plan for Summer 2024. NM is expecting another 5% increase in traffic this year over last year. “But that masks the real story,” said Steven Moore. “In some regions that means traffic will increase 15% or more, while in others there may be no growth at all. And capacity will continue to be constrained by the ongoing war in Ukraine and more recent disruptive events in the Red Sea. Which means that every dancer, musician etc in the ballet will have to work to their optimal level for the benefit of the network for it in turn to work at its optimal level, giving the best overall performance possible.”

All together now 2024

This practical guide helps operational stakeholders to best optimise their air traffic and support the efficient functioning of the Network as a whole. The PDF contains further details.

All together now 2024

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