Europe travelers can expect delays again this summer

Travelers to Europe this summer should again expect a tough
season of flight delays, officials are warning, despite measures being taken to
counter the problem. 

“Finding solutions for the capacity crunch is now
urgent,” European commissioner for transport Violeta Bulc said in a speech
at the IATA general meeting in Seoul early this month. 

Last year, Europe’s air traffic increased by just 3.8%, but
that was enough to push the Continent’s already crowded skies to a tipping
point. For the year, European air traffic controllers generated a
combined 19.1 million minutes of en route delays on some 11 million flights,
more than double 2017. The most consistent delays came during the busy summer

Those holdups were in addition to the much longer delays
caused by airline operational issues and late arrivals of planes at airports
from which they would depart.

Shortfalls in air capacity and staffing were the causes of
60.4% of those en-route delay minutes, according to Eurocontrol, an intergovernmental
organization of 41 member countries that works to coordinate air traffic
management among Europe’s disparate air navigation service providers. The
remainder of the delays were caused by weather (25.3%) and strikes or other
labor disruptions (14.3%). 

In a May announcement, Eurocontrol warned that delays could
be just as bad this year. Through March, the organization said, en route delays
over Europe were up 600,000 minutes year over year. The organization added that
without a series of measures that have been agreed upon by European airlines
and air traffic control entities, such delays could possibly climb to between
30 million and 35 million minutes this year. 

John Grant, senior analyst for the flight data analytics
company OAG, said that fundamentally, Europe suffers from more crowded skies
than the U.S. and has thus far not developed the tools to deal with growing
flight traffic. 

“We need to create more airspace, be that by less
separation, more resources or more staffing,” Grant said. “This is a
very similar situation to the shortage of pilots that we see around the world.
There is a shortage of air traffic controllers, as well.”

But the Continent also suffers from fragmentation. Despite
the air traffic management coordination that is facilitated by Eurocontrol,
Europe is still far short of reaching the EU’s stated goal of having a single
European sky. Instead, aircraft flying above the Continent get passed among air
traffic control entities as they move into various countries’ airspace.

Even though airlines file flight plans with the different
countries they will fly over, that fragmentation adds organizational
complexity, which leads to less efficiently managed skies. 

Grant and analyst John Strickland, director of London-based
JLS Consulting, both said France has the most crowded skies in Europe. Germany,
too, has especially heavy air traffic, Grant said. 

But crowded skies over France, for example, don’t just
impact flyers going to or from a French destination. Instead, Strickland said,
congested French airspace impacts all sorts of flights transiting from Southern
European locales such as Portugal, Spain and Italy to northern locations such
as the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavian countries.

Grant said that TAP Air Portugal’s need to fly over France
and Germany to reach much of its Northern European network is one reason why
the carrier had especially low on-time records last year. TAP recorded an
on-time rate of less than 50% in June and July last year, and its figure was
barely above 50% in August and September, according to OAG data. A year
earlier, TAP’s on-time performance, while still low, was at least seven
percentage points higher in each of those months and was nearly 24 percentage
points higher in June. 

But similar patterns prevail for even the most reliable
European carriers. Finnair, for example, saw its on-time performance dip from
86.8% in May of last year to below 80% in June and July before climbing over
80% again in August and September. In each of those months, the carrier was
late more frequently than it had been in 2017. 

One way Eurocontrol’s new mitigation plan seeks to hold
delays in line this summer is by removing more than 1,000 flights per day from
the most congested airspace. That is to be accomplished either by rerouting
those flights or by capping the altitude at which flights are allowed in order
to reduce traffic at the most popular cruising heights. 

The organization has also asked pilots to make a point of
sticking to their flight plans and not asking for direct routes, because such
changes compromise air traffic predictability.

In addition, Eurocontrol has asked controllers to avoid
granting shortcuts to specific flights because such shortcuts cause congestion
problems downstream. 

In a statement, the organization declared: “We believe
that only by working all together can we make the difference between having
continuous disruptions or an extremely busy but manageable summer, one in which
all the daily planned flights safely reach their destination with a reasonable
amount of — or even very little! — delay.”

Still, the measures called for by Eurocontrol come with
drawbacks both in the form of longer flight times and less operating
efficiency. In Seoul, IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac said that air traffic
delays added 5.6% to the European airline industry’s carbon footprint in 2018. 

Strickland said Europe could also benefit this summer if it
steers clear of controller strikes, particularly in France. 

French controllers, though, remain restless. Workers for the
French controller agency, DSNA, staged their most recent walkout between May 8
and 10.  

Meanwhile, the Netherlands-based Civil Air Navigation
Services Organization (Canso), a membership group that advocates on behalf of
the air traffic management community worldwide, has proposed measures designed
to improve the situation in Europe this summer.

Notably, Canso is calling for air traffic control entities
to be more flexible in allowing for civil aircraft to use military airspace.

“This increases capacity across Europe and requires
enhanced civil/military coordination,” Canso said in an announcement this

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