European Airlines Cautiously Optimistic on Summer Disruptions

 - March 30, 2023, 3:56 PM
(l to r) A4E acting director Laurent Donceel, Ryanair Group CEO Michael O'Leary, Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr, and EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren share their views on Europe's prospects for operational disruptions this year. (Photo: A4E)

European airline CEOs expect to see fewer operational disruptions this summer than they experienced in the summer of 2022, even though social unrest has caused flight delays and cancellations across the continent in recent weeks and labor groups have announced more strikes. A cabin crew union of the Portuguese branch of easyJet plans to strike from April 1 to 3, a TAP Air Portugal pilots’ union has threatened industrial action from April 7 to 10, and Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 employees screening passengers and cargo have called a strike to last from March 31 until April 9. Also, French air traffic controllers have announced further work stoppages in protest of French pension reforms.

“The summer [2023] will be significantly better in Europe than last summer was, but that does not mean it will be easy,” said Ryanair Group CEO Michael O’Leary, speaking at the Airlines for Europe (A4E) summit on Wednesday in Brussels. While airports have done “a tremendous” job at re-staffing, he expects “materially worse” air traffic control disruption than airlines experienced last year because of limitations in European airspace due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and industrial action by air traffic controllers, mainly in France. French controllers called strikes for three days in the first three months of 2022 and 23 days in the first three months of this year.

According to incoming A4E chairman and International Airlines Group CEO Luis Gallego, demand remains strong and passenger numbers could exceed 2019 levels. He expects operations to prove more reliable than last year while calling air traffic controllers’ stoppages “far from ideal as we head into one of the busiest summers in past years.” He urged all partners in the air transport chain to take responsibility to avoid last summer’s chaos and refrain from imposing last-minute capacity restrictions.

Separately, Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr forecasts strong passenger demand in summer 2023. In terms of operational efficiency, however, “it will be better than last year but not good,” he said, amid staff shortages at some airport service providers and ATC bottlenecks. Twenty percent of European airspace is closed because of the events in Ukraine and a big NATO maneuver will take place in parts of European air space in June, he pointed out. “It will be the worst summer in terms of flight delays,” remarked Spohr.

Spohr’s assessment aligns with the conclusion of a draft report by the Eurocontrol Performance Review Commission (PRC), released on March 27. “Without a doubt, 2023 will also be a challenging year for European aviation, stated Eurocontrol PRC chair Marinus de Jong.

“It will require a massive effort of all stakeholders to avoid a repetition of the unacceptable situation of summer 2022, when almost every second flight was delayed, and numerous cancellations left frustrated passengers stranded at airports,”

Air Baltic CEO Martin Gauss told AIN that airports appear better prepared than they were last summer, though not as well as in 2019. “Still, we remain cautious,“ he said. The airline—which wet-leases aircraft to offset the impact of delays in engine maintenance by Pratt & Whitney that power its Airbus A220s—has allocated two more spare aircraft compared with last year to alleviate possible disruption, he said. The closure of big sections of airspace in eastern Europe represents a major challenge for the national airline of Latvia, which shares a border with Russia to the east and Belarus to the southeast. The Riga-based airline reopened routes to Georgia, Baku in Azerbaijan, and Yerevan in Armenia but flights to the east now re-route to the south because the airspace of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine remain closed for EU commercial air traffic. Also, flights to the south suffer restrictions. “We can use the 80-kilometer corridor between Belarus and Kaliningrad, which is Russian territory, but this corridor is very busy so our flights to the south and occasionally to the west in Europe are sometimes rerouted north via Sweden and come down from there,” Gauss explained.

EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren also believes the industry is better prepared to accommodate recovering passenger volumes than it was a year ago. “We are always looking at how we can mitigate disruptions,” he told AIN. “We made sure we have the right schedule, with the right number of aircraft and crew. Our network planners are mindful of a couple of hotspots and of the spillover effect on the rest of the network and operation.”

He acknowledged that strikes and disruptions are inherent challenges for an airline operation, yet he lamented that airlines always bear the primary cost and the burden of blame for cancellations and delays. “The airline is only one part of the aviation chain,” he insisted. “We are seen as liable for everything that goes wrong. This has to change.”

AE4, whose members collectively operated more than 3,300 aircraft and carried over 610 million passengers in 2022, on Wednesday reiterated its longstanding calls to reform the EU261 air passenger rights regulation to allow airlines to recover the disruption costs from the ones that caused the costs, including air traffic control. “The European Commission first proposed to reform EU261 a decade ago. Nothing has happened,” O’Leary concluded.