The record levels of traffic in summer of 2018 were accompanied by record numbers of flight delays and cancellations that exposed the vulnerabilities of Europe’s air traffic management (ATM) system like never before.
All the same, the EUROCONTROL Network Manager (NM) - working at the frontline of balancing increasing demand for air travel with limited ATM capacity - was able to prevent major disruptions from becoming a crisis, and we will be doing the same this summer.
In 2018, NM and partners saved an impressive 8.5 million minutes of air traffic flow management (ATFM) delays through a hugely successful cross-border cooperation, the NM/4ACCs initiative (we expand on this below). Without intervention from the NM Operations Centre (NMOC), airlines would have had a total of €870 million added to their bills.
NM alone saved 3.5 million minutes of ATFM delays – the equivalent of €357 million in savings. But it is clear that further urgent and widespread mitigating action is needed, especially for summer 2019.
In October 2018, NM announced its “7 Measures for 2019” (they are all presented in a nutshell below) initiative, a seven-point plan to ensure that the technical, procedural and institutional short-comings of the ATM network identified in the peak traffic months of 2018 would be addressed as far as possible before summer 2019.
It will take a partnership approach by all stakeholders to achieve this because the main causes for flight delays and cancellations in 2018 lay outside the Agency’s core areas of responsibility.
“The main reason for the ATFM delays last year relates to staffing,” says Razvan Bucuroiu, Head of Network Strategy and Development Division within NM. “We had a sudden situation where, for the first time, the staffing levels at major ANSPs fell to really low levels. That resulted in a low number of sectors being available and this led to the capacity issues that we had. The weather was genuinely bad during the summer 2018 but if we had had fewer capacity problems, the impact of the weather would probably have been much less.”
Giovanni Lenti, Head of Operations in the NMOC, explained further: “ANSPs are not matching sufficient ATCO staffing levels to expected traffic demand. In 2016-2017 the overall ATFM en-route and airport delay figure was 15.6 million minutes. In 2018 it reached 25.6 million.
“The Network increased its capacity in the last 20 years: in 1999 we recorded 40 million minutes of delay with peak daily traffic levels of 25,000 flights. We are now reach peaks of 37,000 flights a day - but we risk going backwards because of staffing policies.”
The seven-point plan will address many of the short-term issues that contributed to the flight disruptions of summer 2019. But it is not a panacea. The plan will not generate much more new capacity in 2019, it will simply ensure that the capacity which is available is optimised.
Adding substantial new levels of capacity is altogether a lengthier and more complex strategic challenge. It will also entail addressing the delicate issues of adequate staffing and industrial action.
NM’s 7 Measures for 2019
1. Enhanced NM/ANSPs network measures for summer 2019
A number of ANSPs will continue to face structural airspace and staff shortage issues in 2019.. The successful NM/4ACCs initiative of last summer will be expanded in 2019 to include more centres and interfaces between busy neighbouring sectors.
2. Preparation of the Network Operations Plan (NOP) 2019-2024, including sector opening schemes and rostering
The new edition of the Network Operations Plan will cover a six year period (2019-2024) to include the full third Reporting Period three (RP3) and respond to the requirements of the Performance Scheme IR, covering ANSPs’ expected capacity requirements for RP3. Updates will be made, as necessary, following the decision of the European Commission on the new RP3 targets.
3. Network Collaborative Decision Making (CDM) process for the management of en-route weather
There was a significant amount of bad weather in summer 2018. Large areas were simultaneously affected, generating a very high amount of weather delay; the lack of structural capacity in some areas exacerbated the weather’s impact.
A more network-oriented approach is needed to handle the situation when large areas are affected by weather. This will be addressed through:
- new network procedures for managing en-route weather
- the definition of roles and responsibilities
- more NM-oriented decision-making on en-route weather management.
4. Harmonisation of Flexible Use of Airspace (FUA) application and Enhanced FUA procedures
While civil-military cooperation has made significant progress over the past years, more must be done to achieve true harmonisation of the FUA application in highly congested airspace.
New procedures are being planned for the availability of civil-military airspace and for the network synchronisation of the utilisation of civil-military airspace at times of high/complex traffic, and during bad weather. We will be paying particular attention to the harmonisation of procedures between Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.
5. Network CDM process to optimise ATFM regulations
In summer 2018, a significantly high number of ATFM regulations were recorded. A number of those regulations were unnecessary, and created demand volatility and unnecessary delay in the network.
A more network-oriented approach to the application of ATFM regulations is needed. This will be achieved through:
- new network procedures for applying ATFM regulations
- better definition of roles and responsibilities
- more NM-oriented decision-making on applying ATFM regulations.
6. Addressing structural airspace bottlenecks
In summer 2018, a high number of ATC control centres (ACCs) showed structural sectorisation problems with high traffic demand being recorded in elementary sectors.
There is an urgent need to start addressing a number of structural airspace design problems in order to avoid further aggravation in the longer term.
To this effect, NM will create three major seamless airspace re-sectorisation projects which will be developed on the basis of operational requirements.
7. ANSPs to work with social partners to avoid strikes or to provide improved notification to airlines and NM
ANSPs are expected to continue their work with social partners to avoid industrial action as far as they can. When this is not possible, it is expected that strike notification procedures will be followed precisely so that appropriate notification can be given to airspace users and NM in order to allow for the timely preparation and coordination of the consequent network mitigation measures.