Europe travelers can expect flight delays again this summer

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A FlightAware graphic shows the density of air traffic over Europe on the evening of June 11.
A FlightAware graphic shows the density of air traffic over Europe on the evening of June 11.

Travelers to Europe this summer should again expect a tough season of flight delays, officials are warning, despite measures being taken to counter the problem. 

"Finding solutions for the capacity crunch is now urgent," European commissioner for transport Violeta Bulc said in a speech at the IATA general meeting in Seoul early this month. 

Last year, Europe's air traffic increased by just 3.8%, but that was enough to push the Continent's already crowded skies to a tipping point. For the year, European air traffic controllers generated a combined 19.1 million minutes of en route delays on some 11 million flights, more than double 2017. The most consistent delays came during the busy summer season. 

Those holdups were in addition to the much longer delays caused by airline operational issues and late arrivals of planes at airports from which they would depart.

Shortfalls in air capacity and staffing were the causes of 60.4% of those en-route delay minutes, according to Eurocontrol, an intergovernmental organization of 41 member countries that works to coordinate air traffic management among Europe's disparate air navigation service providers. The remainder of the delays were caused by weather (25.3%) and strikes or other labor disruptions (14.3%). 

In a May announcement, Eurocontrol warned that delays could be just as bad this year. Through March, the organization said, en route delays over Europe were up 600,000 minutes year over year. The organization added that without a series of measures that have been agreed upon by European airlines and air traffic control entities, such delays could possibly climb to between 30 million and 35 million minutes this year. 

John Grant, senior analyst for the flight data analytics company OAG, said that fundamentally, Europe suffers from more crowded skies than the U.S. and has thus far not developed the tools to deal with growing flight traffic. 

"We need to create more airspace, be that by less separation, more resources or more staffing," Grant said. "This is a very similar situation to the shortage of pilots that we see around the world. There is a shortage of air traffic controllers, as well."

But the Continent also suffers from fragmentation. Despite the air traffic management coordination that is facilitated by Eurocontrol, Europe is still far short of reaching the EU's stated goal of having a single European sky. Instead, aircraft flying above the Continent get passed among air traffic control entities as they move into various countries' airspace.

Even though airlines file flight plans with the different countries they will fly over, that fragmentation adds organizational complexity, which leads to less efficiently managed skies. 

Grant and analyst John Strickland, director of London-based JLS Consulting, both said France has the most crowded skies in Europe. Germany, too, has especially heavy air traffic, Grant said. 

But crowded skies over France, for example, don't just impact flyers going to or from a French destination. Instead, Strickland said, congested French airspace impacts all sorts of flights transiting from Southern European locales such as Portugal, Spain and Italy to northern locations such as the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavian countries.

Grant said that TAP Air Portugal's need to fly over France and Germany to reach much of its Northern European network is one reason why the carrier had especially low on-time records last year. TAP recorded an on-time rate of less than 50% in June and July last year, and its figure was barely above 50% in August and September, according to OAG data. A year earlier, TAP's on-time performance, while still low, was at least seven percentage points higher in each of those months and was nearly 24 percentage points higher in June. 

But similar patterns prevail for even the most reliable European carriers. Finnair, for example, saw its on-time performance dip from 86.8% in May of last year to below 80% in June and July before climbing over 80% again in August and September. In each of those months, the carrier was late more frequently than it had been in 2017. 

One way Eurocontrol's new mitigation plan seeks to hold delays in line this summer is by removing more than 1,000 flights per day from the most congested airspace. That is to be accomplished either by rerouting those flights or by capping the altitude at which flights are allowed in order to reduce traffic at the most popular cruising heights. 

The organization has also asked pilots to make a point of sticking to their flight plans and not asking for direct routes, because such changes compromise air traffic predictability.

In addition, Eurocontrol has asked controllers to avoid granting shortcuts to specific flights because such shortcuts cause congestion problems downstream. 

In a statement, the organization declared: "We believe that only by working all together can we make the difference between having continuous disruptions or an extremely busy but manageable summer, one in which all the daily planned flights safely reach their destination with a reasonable amount of -- or even very little! -- delay."

Still, the measures called for by Eurocontrol come with drawbacks both in the form of longer flight times and less operating efficiency. In Seoul, IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac said that air traffic delays added 5.6% to the European airline industry's carbon footprint in 2018. 

Strickland said Europe could also benefit this summer if it steers clear of controller strikes, particularly in France. 

French controllers, though, remain restless. Workers for the French controller agency, DSNA, staged their most recent walkout between May 8 and 10.  

Meanwhile, the Netherlands-based Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (Canso), a membership group that advocates on behalf of the air traffic management community worldwide, has proposed measures designed to improve the situation in Europe this summer.

Notably, Canso is calling for air traffic control entities to be more flexible in allowing for civil aircraft to use military airspace.

"This increases capacity across Europe and requires enhanced civil/military coordination," Canso said in an announcement this month.

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