ANSPs deliver summer season capacity
Johnny Pring, Manager for Policy and Advocacy at CANSO Europe, explains how air navigation service providers (ANSPs) addressed the revival of passenger numbers in Europe.
In the 2022 summer season, Europeans travelled internationally for their summer holidays in a way that was not possible for the last two years. Thanks to the relaxation of pandemic-related restrictions, many passengers felt confident enough to fly again. Figures from EUROCONTROL showed that in the week of 11-17 July, air traffic levels across Europe reached 86.3% of 2019 levels.
This resurgence in demand was good news after the crisis. And though the industry welcomes more passengers, the challenge of handling rapid growth in traffic had to be addressed. Some airlines and airports struggled to cope. Moreover, there were dramatic shifts in air traffic patterns in Eastern Europe due to the Ukraine war, and this had knock-on effects further west.
CANSO members did remarkably well in providing the capacity required by airspace users and this readiness can be attributed to a number of medium and long-term factors.
Firstly, ANSPs reaped the benefits of forward-looking decisions made during the pandemic. Although they cut costs in response to falling revenues, they did not do so drastically, keeping an eye on what would be needed for the recovery.
Staff costs are higher than most businesses, for example, which means ANSPs could have made deeper savings by shedding air traffic control officers (ATCOs) and air traffic safety engineer personnel (ATSEPs). Mindful, however, that such skilled staff cannot be recruited at short notice – it can take three years to train an ATCO – CANSO members resisted this course and chose to acquire loans to cover revenue shortfalls. As a result, ANSPs were able to immediately provide the necessary manpower to provide the required airspace capacity.
A few examples highlight the work done:
DFS continued ATCO recruitment and training during COVID as far as possible under lockdown restrictions with no reduction in trainees. Since the restrictions lifted, training is once again running at 100% capacity.
ENAIRE has reinforced training and simulation tools to ensure there were new ATCOs for the summer season.
ENAV ensured full ATCO licensing through recruitment and training of ATCOs and technical staff to support the expected traffic recovery.
Beyond staffing, a series of measures helped to provide the needed capacity during the recovery, many of which were in planning or implemented over the course of several years.
Free Route Airspace (FRA) illustrates the point. FRA allows pilots the freedom to plan a route between a defined entry point and a defined exit point rather than follow a route set by air traffic controllers. The structures and procedures are worked out in advance between the civilian aviation authorities, ANSPs and airspace users.
In south-east Europe, FRA has been active in Romanian airspace since November 2019, and following the extensions in 2021 and 2022, now encompasses the multi-national South-East Europe Free Route Airspace (SEE FRA) area with Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia and Moldova. Since July 2021, routes set by ANSPs above Flight Level 105 have been removed, further supporting airspace operators in planning and operating more direct routes.
Moving west, in Poland FRA was introduced in early 2019 and has saved hundreds of thousands of nautical miles. In February 2022, Poland introduced cross-border FRA with Lithuania (Baltic FRA) and Slovakia (as part of the SEE FRA) to further optimise international routing.
Meanwhile, in Spain, the first phase of HISPAFRA (Free Route project) was implemented in April 2022 as part of a Flexible Use of Airspace (FUA) Strategy and combined with new ATM tools.
Work has also been done on air traffic flow management (ATFM). ATFM aims to ensure that capacity is used to the maximum extent possible, and that the traffic volume is compatible with ANSP capacity.
In Germany, DFS has implemented measures jointly with the Network Manager to cope with a significant shift in traffic flows and an increase in traffic due to capacity restrictions in neighbouring airspace. And in Spain, the development and implementation of new flow tools and procedures allow local ANSP, ENAIRE, to handle demand acceptance above nominal capacity.
There have also been infrastructure improvements to enhance efficiency. Since June 2022, 4-FLIGHT has been in operational use in DSNA’s Reims Area Control Centre. This combines advanced flight data processing, a user electronic environment offering a range of innovative control tools, and an advanced simulation environment that will ultimately enable ATCOs to handle more flights in high-density airspace.
Romania, meanwhile, has launched Phase 2 of ROMATSA’s ATM2015 system. Enhanced functionalities enable dynamically adjusted airspace configuration in response to capacity and demand needs, supporting a capacity increase.
And ENAIRE’s Automated Air Traffic Control System (SACTA) has improved information management to allow new operational functionalities for en Route, terminal and tower air traffic management.
Though handling the rapid rise in demand has gone well in Europe, there is understandably a mixed picture globally. Lockdowns, travel restrictions and vaccination rates vary throughout the world and are subject to change at short notice. Economic conditions have suffered too, further complicating the travel picture. This makes it extremely difficult to judge staffing and investment levels in the near and medium term.
India, for example, is again beginning to show signs of its pre-pandemic boom. More airports and busier skies mean the country needs more ATCOs. One report suggests a 40% increase in ATCO numbers is needed with immediate effect and 70% more will be required in the coming years.
India has three training centres, in Prayagraj, Hyderabad and Gondia, and can train more than 260 trainees a year. But the report suggests that to cope with today’s traffic, workloads will need to be adjusted in the short term.
In contrast, Airservices Australia reports it has enough ATCOs – in fact, it recently welcomed 65 new recruits – but has been dealing with seasonal issues as well as residual pandemic-related concerns. Australia was among the last countries to exit from severe COVID restrictions.
An Airservices spokesperson has been reported as saying: “Like most industries, we are experiencing the impacts of COVID-19 and one of the worst flu seasons seen in years, leading to high levels of short-notice, unplanned absences of our staff. We are managing these safely through overtime shifts, governed by our Fatigue Risk Management System.”
Last but not least, virtualisation played a key role in ANSP performance. Italian ANSP, ENAV, has introduced a Remote Digital Tower at Brindisi Airport, and has an ambitious plan for the delivery of Digital Tower Hubs. Such digitisation will allow ENAV to increase airport capacity. Remote towers also allow for round-the-clock operations for the airports that would otherwise have a limited time window for their operations.
ENAIRE are among the other European ANSPs exploring the benefits of virtualisation.
There is no doubt, therefore, that CANSO members maintained a forward-looking view during the pandemic. They invested in their workforce, new infrastructure and innovative procedures. This has driven their strong response to the challenge of the aviation’s recovery and provided the required capacity to airspace users during the northern hemisphere summer.