Air traffic controllers warn of massive delays in summer 2022

Maastricht, December 9, 2021: Air traffic in Europe is threatened in the 2022 holiday season by similar conditions as in the "summer of delays" in 2018. Back then, bad planning in air traffic control led to massive disruptions in European air traffic. The reason for this is that the current capacity planning of the air navigation service providers is too low.

"The current traffic planning outlook for European airspace is extremely tight and falls well short of the expectations of many tour operators and airlines," stressed Stefan Pille, President of the Trade Union EUROCONTROL Maastricht (TUEM). "If their forecasts come true, air navigation service providers in Europe are not prepared for it. The result would be massive delays at peak travel times, stranded travellers across Europe and a stalling of the much-needed economic recovery."

In its latest traffic forecast, the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation EUROCONTROL considers a recovery of aircraft movements to pre-COVID levels possible by the beginning of 2023. Regardless of this, however, air navigation service providers are basing their staffing and capacity planning on a conservatively calculated scenario that does not expect a recovery before mid-2024. This means that the capacity plans deviate significantly from the forecasts of many airlines and travel providers such as TUI or Alltours, which expect a recovery as early as the 2022 summer holiday season. This applies above all to direct flights in European air traffic, which, according to analysts, could even exceed pre-crisis levels again in 2022.

In addition, there is another challenge for the Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre (MUAC), which handles the airspace over the Benelux countries and north-west Germany: Due to a system changeover in the neighbouring French centre, many flights will have to be rerouted through MUAC sectors throughout 2022. "We will have to cope with this additional traffic volume, but it has not even been factored into the forecasts yet," says Pille. Even a "minor congestion" in one sector leads to a Europe-wide domino effect, because flights do not receive take-off permission, have to fly alternative routes or, in the worst case, have to be cancelled altogether.  

TUEM as a union therefore urgently calls for sufficient buffers to be included in capacity planning. "It is clear that forecasts are always associated with uncertainties," said Pille. "Precisely for this reason, however, planning must not be based on wishful thinking. Air traffic control is not an economic service, but a safety-relevant critical infrastructure. It must be detached from economic fluctuations and be prepared for all events.”

In this context, the union urgently warned against using the pandemic as an opportunity to make savings in air traffic control. "Cost-cutting measures under the impression of acute crises – such as the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy or 9/11 –  have so far always led to capacities running behind demand," said the TUEM President. "Air navigation service providers should not make the same mistake again."