Airspace closures, staff shortages and ageing tech: What’s behind 2023’s air traffic disruption?

Adriana Lima
By Adriana Lima 17 Min Read
An air-traffic controller (proper) speaks with guests in the primary management tower on the Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Roissy, close to Paris, September 2014. ©Charles Platiau / Reuters

We all admire the pilots who fly us safely to our vacation spot. Some of us even clap for them on touchdown – a lot to the chagrin of fellow travellers.

But what concerning the hidden heroes guiding our secure path by means of the skies?

Air traffic management officers do the tough job of preserving planes from crashing. Yet most of us had by no means even heard of them till they sparked journey chaos by occurring strike this 12 months.

When you already know what it takes to grow to be an officer, and the excessive stakes nature of their job, it’s simpler to grasp their calls for for good working circumstances and pay.

So what precisely is air traffic management, how do you get a profession in it, and why has it been linked to a lot journey disruption over the previous 12 months?

To discover out what’s actually behind Europe’s air traffic management issues and what it’ll take to repair them, RockedBuzz by way of Euronews Travel spoke to trade our bodies, union members and the European Commission.

What it takes to grow to be an air traffic controller

Staff shortages drove a lot of this 12 months’s airport disruption and strike action.

The pandemic is partly guilty. The monetary pressure, well being restrictions, low air traffic and uncertainty it induced put coaching for a lot of air traffic controllers on maintain. Being capable of handle numerous overlapping planes is a key a part of the job – and that takes practise.

“Adequate on-the-job training was only possible again when traffic levels had increased sufficiently to create a challenging practice environment,” explains Johnny Pring, the supervisor of Europe coverage and advocacy at CANSO (the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation), a consultant physique of air traffic management suppliers.

It takes a minimum of 2.5 years to coach an air traffic management officer (ATCO).

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Every controller goes by means of primary coaching, adopted by specialised coaching in a selected experience, resembling Tower Control, Approach Surveillance or Area Control Surveillance. They should then progress to discipline coaching on the airfield they are going to finally management.

Finally, they are going to full on-the-job coaching with an ATCO who’s certified to offer it. At airports the place traffic has seasonal peaks, simulators are used for coaching throughout much less busy durations to assist preserve competence.

As each airport varies in density and complexity, and a part of the coaching is location particular, air traffic controllers can’t be simply transferred between completely different airports.

At Maastricht Airport’s Upper Area Control Centre (MUAC) within the Netherlands – one of the crucial complicated and busiest in Europe – the coaching takes roughly three years, in line with Eurocontrol, a world organisation that works to attain secure and environment friendly air traffic administration throughout Europe.

Strict rules govern the entire course of and imply that almost all components of the coaching can solely be led by certified ATCs. This means there’s restricted capability for coaching, and staff shortages squeeze this even additional.

What is air traffic management, anyway?

Air traffic management helps plane to maneuver safely and effectively by means of the sky.

Controllers are in fixed contact with pilots, giving them data and recommendation to ensure they take off and land safely and on time. They give the pilots permission to take off, approve the route they’ll take, and be certain that plane are saved a secure distance aside within the skies, monitoring their progress as they go.

In the UK, plane within the airways system are dealt with by NATS (National Air Traffic Services) and overseen by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Eurocontrol oversees air traffic administration throughout the European Union.

Various Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) – the employers of controllers – present particular person air traffic management at airports, which is specialised to every location. Controllers hand over to 1 one other as an plane travels between completely different jurisdictions.

National Air Traffic Services personnel giving an illustration within the operations room at National Air Traffic Services in Swanwick southern England, May 2017.Andrew Matthews/PA File by way of AP

What’s behind the ATC strikes and why are some extra disruptive than others?

From strikes to technical failures, it’s been a turbulent 12 months for Europe’s air traffic controllers.

In spring, French air traffic controllers (ATCs) started a strike in solidarity in opposition to pension reforms. Then in September, Londons Gatwick Airport was pressured to restrict flights after its already depleted ATC staff was struck with COVID-19.

At the time, easyJet chief government Johan Lundgren blamed understaffing for the disruption, telling a British newspaper that the way in which the service is structured, run and regulated is in want of modernisation.

The issues present no signal of abating. Just final weekend, passengers at London’s Heathrow Airport confronted delays and cancellations because of ATC staff shortages and robust winds. On the identical day in France, ATC staff staged a walkout that lasted till Tuesday and led to additional disruption for travellers.

So what’s with all of the air traffic management strikes?

Why are air traffic controllers occurring strike?

Firstly, the cost of living disaster has led employees in varied sectors to strike over pay. Many ATC strikes have been known as to demand wages which might be according to inflation.

Unions have additionally known as for improved working circumstances and help for offering a secure and environment friendly service for transport customers – particularly in gentle of persistent staff shortages.

Most lately, French ATCs have walked out over new laws requiring them to register their intent to strike a minimum of 48 hours prematurely.

Tuesday’s motion in France marked the sixty fifth day of strikes by air traffic controllers because the begin of the 12 months.

French strikes are notably disruptive as additionally they have an effect on ‘overflights’ utilizing French airspace.

“Countries have different approaches to how ATC strikes are regulated,” explains CANSO’s Pring.

“In certain countries (Italy, Greece and Spain), overflights are protected and the strikes only affect domestic traffic; in others, all flights are affected. This regulation is a matter for national governments.”

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How is the pandemic nonetheless affecting Europe’s air traffic controllers?

The pandemic is starting to really feel like a distant reminiscence. Flights in Europe are again to over 94 per cent of 2019 ranges and tourism is booming. But for air traffic controllers, its legacy lives on.

ANSPs handle air traffic on behalf of firms or international locations, and acquire charges from airspace customers. With flights grounded throughout COVID-19, their income plummeted. This pressured lots of them to make price financial savings, resembling reducing staff.

ANSPs working underneath the Single European Sky (SES) – an EU initiative that seeks to enhance their efficiency – are confronted with additional price pressures. The SES units targets for security, setting, capability and cost-efficiency.

While its 2023 assessment exhibits that Europe’s ANSPs met their cost-efficiency targets, it highlights that “for some Member States, achieving this was a result of not adequately investing in their post-pandemic capacity” – with knock-on results for capability targets. It is feasible that this was a acutely aware selection to assist lower prices according to targets.

However, this isn’t the goal of the laws.

Why are ANSPs so closely regulated?

As IATA – the commerce affiliation for the world’s airways – explains, “Airports and air navigation services providers (ANSPs) are, for the most part, natural monopolies.” This means robust regulation is required to make sure they don’t increase their costs arbitrarily. It additionally goals to make sure they enhance their providers and preserve effectivity.

“In effect, the aim of the Single European Sky framework is to encourage monopolies to make the necessary investments with a view to being able to provide sufficient capacity and meet their performance targets,” explains Deborah Almerge Rückert, press officer for Transport and Mobility on the European Commission.

“Such investments could include training and hiring of staff, upgrading to newer systems, rollout of new technologies, radars and so on.”

All stakeholders, together with ANSPs, airways and skilled staff organisations, are consulted when setting the efficiency targets, she provides, with differing views being taken into consideration.

In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulates air traffic management. It has lately accepted a hike in costs to allow the supplier to get well the prices misplaced throughout COVID-19. This will see the common price of UK air traffic providers rise by round £0.43 (€0.49) to round £2.08 (€2.39) per passenger per flight by 2027.

With air traffic now rising, ANSPs are underneath stress to rent extra staff. However, since they’re prevented from making a revenue underneath guidelines established by the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), extra work doesn’t imply greater income.

An easyJet airplane sure for Munich, takes off at Tegel Airport in Berlin, Germany, January 2018.Jens Kalaene/dpa by way of AP

Why do ANSPs battle with recruitment?

ANSPs have discovered it tough to recruit new ATCOs – a problem being confronted by the entire aviation industry, in line with Pring. This partly stems from air traffic management being a really area of interest trade that lacks entry to high expertise.

As most ANSPs are civil service organisations, their staff have sure job safety rights and are likely to work till retirement – which is capped at age 60 in lots of European international locations because of the high-pressure nature of the roles.

As the demand for air traffic management actually took off within the Eighties, lots of the trade’s consultants are actually coming to the tip of their careers.

“Looking ahead, many ANSPs will have to address a retirement wave over the next decade,” provides Pring, which may worsen the scenario considerably if motion isn’t taken quickly.

Currently, gradual or non-replacement of ATCOs after retirement is widespread observe because of funds limitations.

How has the battle in Ukraine impacted air traffic management?

Still reeling from the pandemic, ANSPs had been hit with a brand new unknown: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

“[This] has led to unprecedented [air] traffic volatility across Europe,” says Pring.

As a outcome ANSPs face uncertainty in lengthy and brief time period planning. They have additionally encountered contemporary challenges, as ATCs should adapt to new traffic flows because of airspace closures ensuing from the battle.

The route extensions ensuing from the closure of Ukrainian, Belarussian and Russian airspace to European traffic have additionally pushed ANSPs off target in assembly their Single European Sky environmental targets.

Air traffic delays fell in 2023

All this isn’t to say that the protection of air journey has been compromised in any manner. As Pring notes, “Throughout the pandemic and the recovery, the ATM [air traffic management] industry continued to deliver safe and efficient flight operations.”

He even factors to some operational successes in summer season 2023. Air traffic circulation administration delays per flight fell by 18 per cent from 2.7 minutes per flight to 2.3 minutes, in comparison with 2022, excluding climate elements.

During NATO’s main military air exercise carried out over Germany in June, ANSPs efficiently managed to maintain travellers flying with fewer disruptions than anticipated. Only 12,474 flights had been straight delayed out of a complete 293,928, or 4 per cent of all flights.

So how can ANSPs construct on this constructive momentum?

How can Europe repair its air traffic management issues?

Lundgren might have been on the cash when he stated that the way in which air traffic management is structured, run and regulated is in want of modernisation.

“Dealing with the forecast increase in air traffic and the increasingly complex traffic mix will require investment in technology – increased digitalisation or automation – and people,” says Pring. “So this is a major focus for European ANSPs.”

In France, enhancements are already within the pipeline. The nation has scheduled a serious overhaul of its air traffic management system in 2024, with hundreds of flights to be lower whereas it’s put in.

The EU’s Single European Sky targets even have a job to play.

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“In setting the targets for the coming years, it is crucial to strike the right balance between cost efficiency (which determines what ANSPs can charge their airline customers) and capacity and environment,” says Pring.

“Only in this way will ANSPs have sufficient financial means to invest in the necessary resources – staff and infrastructure – to service their customers.”

This is just not the one position the European Commission performs in serving to with reforms.

“The Commission is working with Member States to reform ATCO training, which is unnecessarily long and complex,” says Almerge Rückert.

It additionally goals to enhance community administration and system resilience by “allowing ATCO mobility across borders and/or cross-border service provision to fill capacity gaps,” she provides.

Such reforms to the Single European Sky wouldn’t solely assist to make service provision extra environment friendly, versatile and scalable, however “should also help reduce flight cancellations in the event of strikes.”

RockedBuzz by way of Euronews Travel reached out to French union SNCTA, Belgium’s Union Syndicale Bruxelles (USB), and the UK’s GATCO and Prospect however didn’t hear again.

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