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Frustrated by delayed flights? As the saying goes, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
But, on a brighter note, charters and freighter flights may fare better than bellies.
Flight delays in Europe are up dramatically this year, according to Eurocontrol, the European air traffic control agency. While in the first five months of 2018, air traffic increased 3.4%, average delays have increased from 0.46 minutes per flight last year to 1.05 minutes per flight.
This momentum sets the aviation industry in Europe on course to clock up a total of 14.3 million minutes of delays this year, up 53% from the 9.3m minutes recorded in 2017.
Eurocontrol attributes the lion’s share of the delays recorded in the January-May period to staffing and capacity issues, while 28% were caused by disruptive events like strikes and 27% were due to weather conditions.
Strikes by air traffic controllers have been particularly disruptive. Eurocontrol counted 39,000 delayed flights caused by ATC strikes in May. Airlines for Europe registered nearly 5,000 flight cancellations as a result of 24 ATC strike days.
“2018 is shaping up to be one of the worst years ever for ATC strikes in Europe,” the airline interest group said, adding that ATC strike action in France was up 300% on last year. France, Germany and the low countries are the worst affected.
Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary warned that Europe’s ATC providers were “approaching the point of meltdown, with hundreds of flights being cancelled daily”, due to ATC strikes or insufficient ATC staffing levels.
Yet international cargo carriers have not felt much of an impact, so far – perhaps because freighter schedules tend to be looser than passenger flights.
Robert van de Weg, senior vice-president of sales and marketing at Volga-Dnepr, said slot constraints had been an issue, notably at Amsterdam Schiphol, but air traffic control had not yet been a concern.
Mike Hill, freight group director at Air Partner, added: “Slots for our ad hoc business have not been affected much in comparison to other years.”
But he noted that ATC strikes sometimes had had a knock-on effect, and delayed some departures by about 30 minutes – “not really noticeable nor dramatic for us,” he added.
“We usually fly from lower-traffic airports. I guess operations out of the main hubs might feel more impact,” he said.
According to Eurocontrol, the problem will get worse unless serious, concerted action is taken. In a new study, Challenges of Growth, the agency warns that the European air traffic network will be unable to cope with traffic volumes forecast by 2040.
The most likely of several scenarios examined in the report sees 1.5m flights unable to take off that year, with 16 airports highly congested and operating close to capacity most of the day. The fall-out from this could be €88.1bn in lost economic activity, Eurocontrol predicts.
At the Airport Council International’s general assembly in Brussels this month, Eurocontrol director general Eamonn Brennan emphasised that the “magnitude of the challenge” required long-term planning, and he called for concerted action.
Eurocontrol’s study suggests a combination of additional runways, deployment of larger aircraft, technological innovation and other steps such as schedule-smoothing to address the issue.
IATA is also throwing its weight into the debate.
“Airports must do more to increase the operating capacity of existing infrastructure and governments need to encourage and facilitate timely and cost-effective expansion of congested airports and airspace,” saidd director general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac.