Editorial

Returning to growth brings its own challenges!

This covers
Eamonn Brennan

Several of the contributors to this edition address Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February and the terrible war that has engulfed that country.

Henrik Hololei notes that “The Russian market is going to be closed for a very long time” and, as I write this, it is hard to see how things will be resolved. Putin has singlehandedly taken his country into a war that is having a devastating impact on Ukrainians – and is also isolating Russia from the international community. Our thoughts are very much with Ukraine and our Ukrainian colleagues.

For most of the rest of Europe, 2022 is seeing a rapid recovery from the effects of COVID. We expect network traffic this summer to be at around 90% of the 2019 level and, in some places, that level will be surpassed. As Iacoppo Prissinotti notes, the focus is very much on minimising the level of delays. COVID brought out the saying “Build Back Better”; this summer will be a key indicator of whether that is being achieved across the EUROCONTROL network, or whether some have not grasped the opportunity of the break in traffic.

Despite the strong current surge in traffic, the effects of COVID and of the war in Ukraine will have much longer-term implications. EUROCONTROL recently published a traffic forecast looking ahead to 2050, the target date for aviation achieving NetZero. Although we expect traffic to grow by 44% by 2050 – taking us up to 16 million flights a year (in 2019 there were just over 11 million flights) – our predictions made before the pandemic anticipated that this level of traffic would be achieved by around 2040, a full ten years earlier.

This delay, much longer that the length of the COVID crisis, reflects the significant economic impact and its effect on air travel. However, 16 million flights a year is still a vast number – and much more than we can manage at present. Air traffic management (ATM) has to improve dramatically over the coming decades, with much more digitisation in order to increase both capacity and efficiency – while still maintaining our high levels of safety.

Future changes

The EUROCONTROL Aviation Outlook 2050 also looked at net carbon emissions to see whether and how the target of NetZero might be achieved. The answer is yes, but not through our skies being full of electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft. Such aircraft will contribute but the biggest driver of reduced net emissions will need to be a massive increase in the production, supply and use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). Even then, some market-based measures (carbon offset) will also be required.

In view of this, there is a very clear imperative to ensure that ATM is doing all that it can to make aviation more sustainable, by reducing the inefficiencies in the system. Aircraft do not always fly an optimum trajectory and this can be for a number of reasons, such as avoiding military airspace, airspace design (such as the use of waypoints), congestion (both enroute and at airports), perverse incentives (route charges being more expensive in one country than another) and the unavailability/lack of use of Continuous Climb/Continuous Descent procedures. On the ground, we also need to reduce fuel burn though better ways of taxiing and better departure management.

I am encouraged by the increased availability of Free Route Airspace across Europe but there are other areas (such as congestion) where a real improvement can and should be made in order to address even this summer’s traffic levels, let alone those forecast for the years to come. ATM needs to be more agile and responsive – but it also needs to look well ahead to see how we can overcome the huge challenges on the horizon that are already clearly visible.

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