The record levels of traffic in summer of 2018 were accompanied by record numbers of flight delays and cancellations that exposed the vulnerabilities of Europe’s air traffic management (ATM) system like never before.
All the same, the EUROCONTROL Network Manager (NM) - working at the frontline of balancing increasing demand for air travel with limited ATM capacity - was able to prevent major disruptions from becoming a crisis, and we will be doing the same this summer.
In 2018, NM and partners saved an impressive 8.5 million minutes of air traffic flow management (ATFM) delays through a hugely successful cross-border cooperation, the NM/4ACCs initiative (we expand on this below). Without intervention from the NM Operations Centre (NMOC), airlines would have had a total of €870 million added to their bills.
NM alone saved 3.5 million minutes of ATFM delays – the equivalent of €357 million in savings. But it is clear that further urgent and widespread mitigating action is needed, especially for summer 2019.
In October 2018, NM announced its '7 Measures for 2019' (they are all presented in a nutshell below) initiative, a seven-point plan to ensure that the technical, procedural and institutional short-comings of the ATM network identified in the peak traffic months of 2018 would be addressed as far as possible before summer 2019.
It will take a partnership approach by all stakeholders to achieve this because the main causes for flight delays and cancellations in 2018 lay outside the Agency’s core areas of responsibility.
"The main reason for the ATFM delays last year relates to staffing,” says Razvan Bucuroiu, Head of Network Strategy and Development Division within NM. “We had a sudden situation where, for the first time, the staffing levels at major ANSPs fell to really low levels. That resulted in a low number of sectors being available and this led to the capacity issues that we had. The weather was genuinely bad during the summer 2018 but if we had had fewer capacity problems, the impact of the weather would probably have been much less."
Giovanni Lenti, Head of Operations in the NMOC, explained further: “ANSPs are not matching sufficient ATCO staffing levels to expected traffic demand. In 2016-2017 the overall ATFM en-route and airport delay figure was 15.6 million minutes. In 2018 it reached 25.6 million.
“The Network increased its capacity in the last 20 years: in 1999 we recorded 40 million minutes of delay with peak daily traffic levels of 25,000 flights. We are now reach peaks of 37,000 flights a day - but we risk going backwards because of staffing policies.”
The seven-point plan will address many of the short-term issues that contributed to the flight disruptions of summer 2019. But it is not a panacea. The plan will not generate much more new capacity in 2019, it will simply ensure that the capacity which is available is optimised.
Adding substantial new levels of capacity is altogether a lengthier and more complex strategic challenge. It will also entail addressing the delicate issues of adequate staffing and industrial action.