Air Traffic Control Delays Continue Upward Creep in Europe

 - March 18, 2019, 12:19 PM

The recent stark warning from Eurocontrol director general Eamonn Brennan that the continent’s air traffic system is close to “hitting a wall” appeared validated by data for February—typically a quiet time of year—revealing a sharp increase in delays on the year-ago period. Traffic last month rose by 3 percent compared with February 2018, but air traffic flow management (ATFM) delays increased 28.3 percent—to an average of about 26,000 minutes per day. Total en-route ATFM delays in February saw a 46.6 percent hike, and airport ATFM delays rose by 15.8 percent compared with February 2018, according to figures released by Eurocontrol.

On average, the number of flights per day with an en-route ATFM delay of at least 15 minutes increased from 177 flights per day in February last year to 253 flights per day in February—representing one percent of all flights handled by European air navigation service providers (ANSPs). Furthermore, the average ATFM delay per flight increased from 0.8 minutes per flight in January to 1 minute per flight in February. The average delay per flight in Europe amounted to 2.2 minutes over the past 12 months. The rolling 12-month trend shows also that the total ATFM delay increased 65.3 percent during the March 2018 to February 2019 period compared with March 2017 to February 2018.

En-route ATFM delays accounted for 46.3 percent of all ATFM delays, and most of that delay resulted from en-route ATC capacity shortages, ATC staffing issues, and ATC disruptions—mainly the closure of Belgian airspace on February 13 due to industrial action. The upper control center in Karlsruhe, Germany, remained by far the worst spot of the European ATC system, as it generated the vast majority of the en-route ATC capacity and ATC staffing delays. 

To tackle Europe’s ever-growing ATM capacity shortages and airspace inefficiencies, including the lack of the implementation of the Single European Sky (SES), leaders of Airlines for Europe (A4E), the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO), the European Business Aviation Association (EBAA), Eurocontrol, and the European Travel Commission (ETC) last fall joined to sign what they call an “Efficient Airspace” declaration. Measures of the Declaration to go into place by the start of the 2019 summer schedule, A4E said, include a strengthened coordinated approach by the Eurocontrol Network Manager to address restrictions, civil/military cooperation, and unplanned events. The Eurocontrol Network Manager will also implement “enhanced” measures to balance air traffic capacity with demand across the network, following input by airlines and in cooperation with CANSO member ANSPs.  

[“The Efficient Airspace declaration] has succeeded in reinvigorating enthusiasm for the vision of a seamless European sky of the future—as part of the SES initiative— and these past few months have shown that a combined effort among operational and political stakeholders is essential in order for real progress to occur,” A4E managing director Thomas Reynaert asserted. “We continue to set the standard in calling on national governments and the EU to make EU airspace reform a top political priority.”