#BuildBackBetter isn’t just a hashtag – it’s a goal, it’s a way of thinking

Eamonn Brennan

"COVID-19 has been an unprecedented calamity for European aviation and its effects will be with us for many years to come."

The latest EUROCONTROL traffic scenarios indicate that in the most likely case, the number of flights in Europe will recover to 2019 levels in 2024. This assumes that vaccination rollouts will continue to move ahead and facilitate more long haul travel, starting in 2022. Certainly, it is clear that there is a lot of pent-up demand and that airlines are ready to increase capacity rapidly once travel restrictions ease.

Change ahead

But that doesn’t mean that European aviation in 2024 will be the same as in 2019. We can already see that there will be many changes and we need to be preparing for them. In fact, we need to be driving change. 2019 saw air traffic management (ATM) in several parts of Europe straining to meet the demand of over 11 million flights. We had massive delays (en-route delays were over three times the target level) and the measures taken to minimise delays sometimes resulted in more inefficient flights, at a cost both to the airlines and to the environment. So we don’t want to be in the same position as 2019 once traffic recovers to that level and for that reason it is essential that we secure a good outcome from the ongoing EU Single European Sky reform negotiations in the coming months.

Changes are anyway happening in every part of the sector. Manufacturers are focusing on the latest, most fuel-efficient models as a result of demand from the airlines, several of which are also changing the mix within aircraft with more premium economy seating. Recently Lufthansa said that the financial contribution per square metre of premium economy was 39% higher than that of business class. This rebalancing of the cabin is also driven by concerns over how much business travel there will be post-recovery, now that video conferencing has moved from an occasional experience in a specially equipped room, to an everyday experience from your desk – or wherever you happen to be.

COVID-19 Changes

COVID-19 has also prompted a series of changes to the travelling experience, some of which may well be here to stay post-pandemic. Airlines have become much more responsive and agile – adjusting routes as a result of evolving demand. The idea of setting schedules for an entire season may cease to be the norm. At airports, COVID-19 has resulted in more spacing and, potentially, less capacity.

We are also seeing an acceleration of the trend towards contactless progression through the airport with fewer passengers checking-in and more technology such as facial recognition being used to ease the traveller’s journey and to minimise bottlenecks.

One area where major delays are feared (and, in some cases, are already being seen) is immigration/verification of health status. There is a real need to digitalise this and move much of the work away from the airport itself. Once travel restrictions take account of the health status of the passenger (including vaccination) and there is widespread acceptance of (and use of) digital certificates such as the EU Digital COVID Certificate or the IATA Travel Pass, then the burden on officials at the airport (and the passenger) should ease. However, for now we are already hearing of multi-hour delays; some airports are restricting the number of flights they can take based on their immigration capacity (in at least one case looking at this on a terminal by terminal basis).


COVID-19 impact on the European air traffic network

Explore our COVID-19-related reports, analyses and forecasts. 

Technological changes

Other changes are part of the constant process of evolving technology. ATM has to respond to and embrace changes whether they come from inside (such as the growing capabilities and use of Remote Towers) or from outside traditional ATM. Here we see major changes coming in terms of new aircraft types. A lot of the news is about drones but there are many other innovations, ranging from urban air taxis to very high altitude aircraft and even airships for short/ medium range passenger travel.

Technology can also enable new ways of doing things within ATM. The rapid explosion in the availability of data means that we can plan traffic flows across Europe much better than ever before – which means more capacity and fewer delays. Artificial Intelligence is already starting to deliver practical benefits in aviation and this is set to accelerate. EUROCONTROL has just hosted a series of fascinating webinars on the topic.

Fly AI

FLY AI Webinars

Next up: AI Training & change management for aviation.

Sustainability changes

One area where change is being driven across the industry is sustainability. Again, this ranges across all the different parts of aviation. Aircraft manufacturers are not only making more fuel-efficient aircraft, they are also starting work on developing new types, such as electric and hydrogen-powered. For current aircraft, aircraft and engine manufacturers are making the use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) possible in ever greater proportions. We are lucky enough to have contributions from both Airbus and Boeing in this issue.

There’s been a sharp rise in calls to shift from air to rail, especially for travel below 1,000 km. In June, we published our latest Think Paper which provided some balance to the debate. The paper concluded that rail cannot effectively substitute for air. Transportation decarbonisation is more complex than simply planning to shift to rail for travel below 1,000 km. Such a shift, we find, would achieve only limited emissions savings while generating a range of drawbacks including a high total cost; a long lead time, resulting in new rail lines potentially entering into operation after aviation decarbonisation has started to deliver huge gains from SAF use and innovative propulsion technologies; and entailing significant economic and environmental downsides without being able to match the connectivity air provides. However, the paper does find that multimodal solutions that combine air and rail are highly attractive in terms of optimising sustainability and improving connectivity.

Airplane flying over a train

EUROCONTROL Think Paper #11 – Plane and train: Getting the balance right

Transport investment should be balanced between both industries, building on natural complementarities and working towards the transport industry’s emissions reduction goals, making the optimal solution more “plane and train” rather than “plane vs train”.

Airports are now starting to make SAF more available and this will be vital if the industry is to achieve the targets expected to be agreed as part of the ReFuelEU initiative. We are even starting to see work on seeing how hydrogen storage at airports will happen in practice.

Airports are also already doing a great deal to reduce their own emissions, with more than 90 airports set to achieve Net Zero emissions by 2030. Electric vehicles are being introduced for passenger transport, baggage handling, aircraft pushback and even de-icing. ACI Europe recently reaffirmed the commitment of the European Airport Industry to achieve Net Zero by 2050 at the latest.

At the end of May, EUROCONTROL joined with EASA in setting out five pillars for a Green Single European Sky ranging from objectives to oversight. These pillars also include using the SES charging scheme as a tool to provide incentives to encourage efficient flight trajectories. We estimate that 8.6%-11.2% of emissions could be generated from fuel-efficient air traffic management improvements (see our recent Think Paper). We’re already working with partners to start achieving these improvements.

Green airplane flying over a biofuel tank

EUROCONTROL Think Paper #10 - Flying the ‘perfect green flight

Build back better

We have seen some of these improvements during the pandemic. Aircraft are flying more efficient flight profiles, using more direct routes at more efficient flight levels and increasing the proportion of flights using techniques such as Continuous Descent Operations. In part, this has been achieved because of the relatively low levels of traffic we have experienced. Also, we’ve been able to drop a lot of route restrictions.

The challenge is to maintain as much as possible of these gains even as traffic recovers. It won’t be easy – the entire industry has been under incredible financial pressures over the last year and that makes it even harder to justify investing in the future. But that is exactly what we must be doing. We need to look ahead to 2025 and make sure that as traffic levels recover to 2019 levels, we don’t also have the delays, the diversions and the inefficient flight profiles. We’re already working on that and there’s an excellent article on the operational recovery in this issue.

#BuildBackBetter isn’t just a hashtag – it’s a goal, it’s a way of thinking. It’s vital for all of us if we are to make aviation more efficient and more sustainable.

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