European Airlines Highlight Environmental Costs of ATC Woes

 - March 7, 2019, 3:21 PM
Suboptimal flight paths resulted in 229,000 metric tons of additional fuel consumption and 721,000 metric tons of avoidable CO2 emissions in Europe from 2015 to 2017. (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons (BY-ND) by Pierre PRESTAT)

Frustrated by the lack of progress in the implementation of the Single European Sky (SES) project and dreading a repeat of last year’s rise in flight delays mainly due to air traffic control (ATC) strikes and staff shortages, the CEOs of Europe’s main airlines now are calling attention to the high environmental costs of Europe’s inefficient airspace. “The CO2 that is produced by the inefficiency [of the continent’s air traffic management] is a scandal,” International Airlines Group CEO Willie Walsh said during the Airlines for Europe (A4E) summit in Brussels on Wednesday. After pushing OEMs to manufacture more fuel-efficient aircraft, airlines cannot fully exploit the benefits of their investments in new equipment, he complained. “This is a disgrace,” said Walsh. “It’s like driving a car with six gears but you are only allowed to use three gears.”

EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren said the low-cost carrier’s analysis of its 10 busiest routes showed that flying direct and at optimal vertical flight trajectories would lead to an 18 percent carbon reduction. “This is a cost to ourselves and to our customers, and it is an issue for the planet,” he asserted. “We need to make progress on this.” 

Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr added that environmental concern could act as a driver to solve the issue and place it on the agenda of politicians, while cautioning that not solving the issue could affect demand. “How can politicians allow us to pollute five to ten percent more because of inefficiencies of the system,” he asked. Further, he warned, passengers will start reconsidering a short-haul weekend trip if they lose a couple of hours in air traffic delays.  

Airlines’ investments in new aircraft technology and operational measures on intra-European Economic Area (EEA) flights saved some 3.9 million metric tons of fuel and 12.2 million metric tons of CO2 emissions between 2015 and 2017, according to a study commissioned by the A4E and performed by the SEO Amsterdam Economics and To70 consultancies. The savings equates to 1 million intra-EEA commercial flights, or two months of flying within the EEA.

However, inefficient flight operations caused by disruptions—strikes and technical failures—at European air navigation service providers (ANSPs) and the fragmented design of European airspace partly offset their achievements, observed SEO head of aviation economics Rogier Lieshout.

Due to inefficiencies in European ATM, flight distances for intra-EEA flights extended 0.61- to 0.76 percent longer than technologically possible over the 2015-2017 period. The suboptimal flight paths resulted in 229,000 metric tons of additional fuel consumption and 721,000 metric tons of avoidable CO2 emissions, the study revealed.

ATC strikes and technical failures generated an additional 43,000 metric tons of avoidable CO2 emissions. An average strike increased flight distances by 37,800 nautical miles per day, requiring 200 metric tons of additional fuel, and an average technical failure increased flight distances by 1,600 nautical miles per day, requiring 10 tons metric tons of additional fuel. Those inefficiencies equate to the fuel consumption and emissions of around 3,500 commercial passenger flights within the EEA, the SEO/To70 analysis noted. Europe endured 33 ATC strikes and 64 technical failures at ANSPs over the 2015-2017 period, most of which occurred in France.

Last year proved even worse in terms of ATC disruptions, and resulting CO2 output. Whereas Europe’s air traffic increased by 3.8 percent in 2018 compared with 2017, en-route delays skyrocketed 105 percent. Some 26 percent of all flights departed late and the average flight delay lasted 49 minutes, according to the latest Eurocontrol data. Up to 334 million passengers felt the effects of the delays and cancellations, costing the EU economy €17.6 billion, or 28 percent more than in 2017.

Ryanair CEO and A4E chairman Michael O'Leary said progress on aviation has “stalled and we are going backwards.” The EU must tackle ATC monopolies through “internationalization” of airspace, the introduction of competition between ATC providers, and quicker delivery and flexible deployment of air traffic controllers, he assessed as he outlined the trade body’s “Efficient Airspace” declaration. Leaders from the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO), the European Business Aviation Association (EBAA), and Eurocontrol last year agreed to the set of principles and measures to improve Europe’s ATM system.

“A combined effort among operational and political stakeholders is required for real progress to occur,” said Thomas Reynaert, A4E managing director. “We continue to call on national governments and the EU to make reform of Europe’s inefficient air traffic management system a top political priority.” A4E desiderata include the creation of an independent economic regulation for ANSPs, a more centrally managed European air traffic network, and a system that would make ANSPs liable for passenger compensation costs for delayed and canceled flights arising from ATC disruptions. The association also wants the next European Commission to set a mandate for implementation of cross-border airspace.