Europe's flight delays cost €100 a minute
As passengers and airline bosses face growing disruption there are fresh calls for an air-traffic shake-up, writes John Mulligan
Next time your flight is delayed, think about this: every single minute of that delay is estimated to cost the European economy about €100. That includes everything from extra fuel burn to compensation for passengers. The tally quickly mounts as aircraft endure en-route delays or wait on the tarmac to take off.
With delays having increased significantly across Europe in recent years, the EU's network controller, Eurocontrol, reckons that they cost the region's economy €17.6bn in 2018.
Last year was the busiest ever for flights in Europe, but 26pc of all those flights were delayed. Delays soared 279pc between 2013 and 2018, while the number of flights jumped 14pc in the period.
"Last year, 334 million passengers in Europe had their flights delayed by more than 15 minutes and 23 million had their flights cancelled," said Eurocontrol director general Eamonn Brennan in Madrid last week.
He was addressing journalists at the annual World ATM Congress, a get-together for the air-traffic-management industry that draws aerospace companies such as Boeing and Thales, as well as air navigation service providers (ANSPs) and other stakeholders.
"It's exposing the airline industry to huge compensation as part of EU261," he added.
The EU's 261 rule ensures passengers are entitled to sometimes quite significant compensation when flights are delayed or cancelled.
Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary recently said that national air traffic control providers - the ANSPs that operate airspace across Europe - should be forced to shoulder costs associated with delays that are their fault.
Henrik Hololei, the European Commission director general for mobility and transport, said previous efforts to address how ANSPs could be held accountable for delays caused by them had floundered.
"The basic human logic would say that the one who causes a problem is the one who is responsible for it," he said in Madrid. "If somebody else is paying for that, then it's not entirely logical.
"Having said that, there is not even a common view within the airline community, a common view whether this is the right way forward or not," added Mr Hololei. "It has to be sticks and carrots. The system has to change and there has to be the incentives to change the system."
Mr Hololei said that in 2018, 15pc of flight delays were caused by "disruptions", including ATC (Air Traffic Control) strikes. A further 25pc were a result of weather, while capacity and ATC staff shortages were the cause of 60pc of delays.
Mr Brennan, the former Irish Aviation Authority CEO, said that Eurocontrol has shifted some aircraft traffic flows in Europe for the coming summer in an effort to reduce delays, a move he said was "decisive action" that would provide benefits.
About 1,000 flights a day will be routed out of German airspace, for example, with those flights instead traversing countries such as Poland and Belgium. However, he said that the best outcome that passengers should expect for the coming holiday season is that the delays won't be any worse than during summer 2018.
Flight delays also have another knock-on effect: longer routes used to reduce delays result in higher carbon emissions. Last year, those emissions from flights in Europe rose 5.2pc.
Airlines have continually criticised increasing air traffic delays. A shortage of air traffic controllers in key sectors in Europe, such as in Germany, has been contributing to the problem. Hence Eurocontrol's decision to re-route some traffic this summer.
There were 11 million flights across European airspace last year, which was 3.8pc higher than in 2017. The average, daily number of flights was 30,168, while on September 7 last year - the busiest day of 2018 - 37,101 flights were handled.
Willie Walsh, the chief executive of Aer Lingus owner IAG, has frequently railed against flight delays caused by strikes and a lack of air traffic controllers. IAG also owns British Airways, Iberia, Level and low-cost Spanish carrier Vueling, which has been hit particularly hard by air traffic control issues.
"Most of the capacity reductions we had [in 2018] were with Vueling, where we cut their growth ambition because of the ATC environment," Mr Walsh told investors last month as IAG released full-year results.
"Vueling was disproportionately impacted by the air traffic control environment in Europe in 2018," he said. "Not only were they hit by the en-route ATC delays, but Barcelona was one of the most impacted airports on the European network. We operate about 201 flights from Barcelona and 19pc of all flights in Barcelona were delayed by ATC and the average delay was roughly 19 minutes across the whole airport."
And all these delays can have a big impact, especially for low-cost carriers such as Vueling, Ryanair and others across Europe, which are reliant on quick turnaround times and typically getting aircraft back in the air within just 25 minutes.
"What the delay statistics don't show you is that a lot of the problems were caused not just by ATC, but by the reaction to those ATC delays," said Mr Walsh. "They delay the flight on the outbound leg, the flight remains delayed on the leg, but they don't have the return [classified] as being an ATC delay."
Mr Walsh said IAG has "taken measures" to counteract what the group believes will be a "difficult" ATC environment this year across Europe.
Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary recently called for the training time of air traffic controllers to be slashed to six months to fill shortages across the system.
"That's not feasible," said Mr Brennan last week. "On average, it takes three years to train an air traffic controller - maybe even a little bit longer. It's not that easy."
He pointed out that the number of flights in Europe in the first two months of 2019 is already up 3pc year-on-year, while en-route delays have soared 17pc.
"We're having a very significant constraint with air traffic in the Karlsruhe area [an ATC control centre in south-west Germany], where there's a staff shortage and a capacity shortage," he said.
Mr Brennan pointed out that air traffic has been growing consistently in Europe, even during recessions.
"We anticipate having 300,000 additional flights in the [European] network this summer," he said.
The expected growth in air traffic has put a strain on the air network and intensified the need to hire and train staff across the spectrum of the aviation industry.
"It is estimated that by 2036, the aviation sector will need an additional 620,000 pilots, 125,000 new air traffic controllers, and 1.3 million new aircraft maintenance personnel," said Mr Hololei.
"While 90pc of future jobs require some level of digital literacy, 44pc of Europeans lack basic digital skills," he added.
But another huge issue remains: getting national air traffic control agencies to really work together. Bar a small number of notable exceptions - Ireland's Irish Aviation Authority and the UK's Nats have worked closely together to achieve operational and cost efficiencies, for example - ANSPs have typically been siloed. They don't even use the same ATC computer systems, with the lack of interoperability a major hurdle to achieving change.
So achieving the EU's long-standing aim of creating a Single European Sky, where the fragmented European ATC network is transformed into so-called Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs) that transcend national borders, remains a goal not yet fully achieved.
"Things have not moved, necessarily, to the direction we might have all wanted 15 years ago," said Mr Hololei.
"The member states haven't been that forthcoming. We tried to create the FABs," he added. "It was definitely one way to see how we can move forward in a situation where there is a political reluctance to move forward. Some of the FABs have worked well, but not all of them. There has been a lack of a culture of co-operation. I think we have overcome that."
So is there any hope that the issues in European skies will be sorted out within the next few years?
Mr Hololei insisted there are reasons for hope.
"How optimistic am I? Look, I'm an optimistic person by nature. Yes, we have been talking a lot about the Single European Sky. We have also been making different initiatives trying to take this forward," he added. "Despite that we haven't been able to achieve a totally defragmented, seamless European sky, we have also made progress which otherwise would not have been possible."
He said that Eurocontrol's role as network manager would be "strengthened even more" and that the issue of national sovereignty in the skies "is the main source" of the fragmentation.
"It is very difficult to understand that, especially when you think that a truck can move from the northernmost place to the southernmost place of the European Union without any difficulties on the borders," he said.
"Why can't an airplane do the same?" he asked. "It's exactly the same thing. You have a single market on the ground, you have a single market for services and suddenly you don't have a single market in the skies - even though you're supposed to have a single European sky and we do have a single European aviation market."
With more misery for air travellers this year, it will still be some time before that dream of a true single European sky is realised.