Europe's core airspace nears saturation point as 'volatile' traffic hits an all-time record

Air traffic controllers managing some of Europe’s busiest airspace handled an all-time traffic high in 2017, topping the historical peak reached the previous year.
In 2017, controllers guided 5.99 million flights (+3.4 per cent) through FABEC’s 1.7 million sq km of airspace, accounting for around 60 per cent of European air traffic.
The airspace of the six FABEC nations of Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland is one of the busiest and most complex in the world. The majority of major European airports, major civil airways and military training areas are located in this area.
The number of arrivals at the 83 airports within the FABEC area grew by nearly 2 per cent compared with 2016 driven by the overarching positive growth of the aviation market, which continued for the fourth consecutive year.
Volatility of traffic demand becomes a fact
Despite this overall trend, there are significant variations between control centres, and especially, individual sectors. Traffic demand has become volatile and the bandwidth of monthly growth for FABEC ANSPs varied between -0.9 and +7.7 per cent (annual average +3.4 per cent).
Individual growth rates at the control centre or sector level can be significantly higher. In addition, some sectors – especially in the core area – are becoming saturated, meaning they are no longer able to cope with additional unpredicted demand. Analyses show that volatility of traffic has become a complex and multidimensional issue severely impacting air traffic management. The underlying causes range from geopolitical conflicts, the impact of climate change and new and diverging business models of airspace users up to tactical aspects, such as individual flight planning or unexpected and short-term changes of sector loads.
First indications on passenger impact
In 2017, 93 per cent of all flights (2016: 94.1 per cent) experienced no delays caused by air traffic control as measured by ATFM en-route delays, the indicator used to assess the contribution to delay attributable to air navigation services within the aviation chain. In addition, 97.4 per cent arrived at their destination airports within 15 minutes of the scheduled time. Consequently, the overall amount of delay minutes caused by traffic flow measures increased by 11.5 per cent (2017: 69 seconds per flight; 2016: 64 seconds per flight). FABEC missed the target of 25 seconds per flight.
The main reasons for ATC delays are shortages in capacity (42.3 per cent) and staffing (15.7 per cent) – both mainly due to a mismatch of unpredicted traffic versus long-term staff and capacity planning as determined in the FABEC Performance Plan. Beside this, the impact of climate change is increasing, and becoming more visible for passenger in terms of thunderstorms or closures of airports due to snow on the runways. In 2017, 23 per cent of all delays were caused by adverse weather. The impact of industrial action decreased substantially, causing 10 per cent of the overall delay.
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