Searching For Solutions


The last days of August saw the European air transport network – as predicted – coming under huge pressure as traffic levels broke all-time highs and saw delay skyrocketing.

According to the Eurocontrol Network Manager, the last Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in August were the busiest three consecutive days in network history with Friday 31 August the busiest day ever setting up a new traffic record with 36,966 flights.

For the full month of August, the network managed 1.1 million flights, an increase of 3.5 per cent compared to 2017. Nearly a fifth of these flights were delayed representing a total of more than 3 million minutes of delay – a doubling of the number of delayed flights compared to August 2017.

Of these delayed flights, 46 per cent were delayed by more than 15 minutes. The average en-route delay per flight in August was 2.9 minutes compared to 1.4 minutes last year and, the average delay both on the ground and in the air standing at 18.8 minutes. En-route delays were caused by capacity and staffing issues (62 per cent), weather (35 per cent ) and disruptive events/strikes (3.3 per cent).

Germany was the first to declare it was reaching ‘peak air’ with its airline industry accepting that it must apply the brakes on growth while the nation sorts out its capacity crunch.

Airline industry body BARIG which represents 100 German and international airlines said it met with air navigation service provider Deutsche Flugsicherung DFS at the close of August and agreed that flights at some airports should not be increased in order to maintain a quality and punctual service.

Further Eurocontrol statistics now show that over the three months of June, July and August, the European network managed more than 3.2 million flights – more than 1 million flights each month – and saw en-route delays increased by 115 per cent, amounting to 10.6 million minutes of delay for the period.

To put that into context, the overall 2017 en-route delay for the entire year was 9.3 million minutes.

July was the worst month in terms of delays in 2018 with a weekly en-route average delay of more than 1 million minutes, adding 4.2 million minutes of en-route delay during this month alone. The average en-route delay per flight over the summer period was 3.33 minutes (+192 per cent in comparison with last summer).

Over those three months, one in five flights were delayed (647,148 flights) and half of these suffered delays of more than 15 minutes. The reason for delays over 2018 summer were capacity and staffing (61 per cent), weather (30 per cent) and disruptive events/strikes (9 per cent).

For the full year (1 January – 31 August 2018), network traffic has grown by 3.5 per cent to 7.4 million flights, with a total of 15.3 million minutes of en-route delay for the year so far, up 120 per cent against the same period last year.

The average en-route delay per flight for this period was 2.05 minutes – the EU-wide performance target for the full year is 0.5 minutes. En-route capacity and staffing issues generated 56 per cent of delays, weather – 29 per cent and disruptive events and strikes – 15 per cent. The air traffic centres at Karlsruhe, Marseille and Maastricht have been the three centres with the highest en-route delay figures for the first eight months of the year.

Eamonn Brennan, the director general of Eurocontrol, tells Air Traffic Management: “2018 has been incredibly tough year on the industry for many reasons. With regard to air traffic control delays, we know the reasons and right now there’s no point in blaming anyone.

“We need to work together to find short term measures to make the network perform better next year. Remember, this year has been the busiest year on record and the majority of air navigation service providers (ANSP) have managed their airspace capacity really well and that should be duly recognised.”

He said that 2019 will prove to be difficult too despite efforts by the Network Manager which was already working hard to prepare for next year.

He said ANSPs now need to work more collaboratively with the Network Manager so that it can manage the capacity on a network basis. “European airspace is saturated in certain areas and the technical solutions to resolve the problems are many years from deployment. In the medium to long term, we need to approach things differently.”

Germany’s DFS agreed that casting around to blame others served no purpose: “Air traffic thrives on the smooth cooperation of all system partners – airlines, airport operators, security service providers and air navigation service providers. This is especially true in such a highly frequented and complex airspace as it is in the heart of Europe, in Germany.

“The strong growth in air traffic has a particular impact on the available capacity in the sky and thus on air navigation services. This is a particular challenge in airspace that is already operating at their capacity limits. Safety is always the top priority here.”

It said it was working intensively on measures to make the required capacity available as quickly as possible through ramping up training and working with its European partners to relieve congestion in Europe’s upper airspace by shifting flights to lower, less congested flight levels.

It also added that the regime under which all EU ANSPs have been regulated since 2012 has led to ‘considerable undesirable developments’ with cost efficiency being achieved at the expense of available capacity.

“Generally speaking, we need competent regulation in Europe that is not based on long-term, volatile traffic forecasts. Regulation needs a clear change that takes national circumstances into account and is based on European principles.”