Eurocontrol director general Eamonn Brennan has warned that urgent action is needed to avoid European flight delays nearly doubling by 2040, as record traffic growth continues.

“Today, the average flight is delayed by 12 minutes. By 2040, that figure will have risen to 20. It will basically nearly have doubled,” Brennan told delegates at the ACI Europe and World General Assembly in Brussels on June 19.

This bottleneck will be created by airspace congestion and a lack of ground infrastructure. In just over 20 years, he said, Europe will go from six very congested airports to 16.

“By 2040, there will be 1.5 million flights not accommodated in Europe, because we have no runway capacity and simply can’t cope. This means 160 million passengers will not be able to fly,” he said. “The reality is this is a cap on your growth, a constraint on your business plans and something you need to be aware of,” he told airports and airlines attending the conference.

Between January and May 2018, Eurocontrol reported that en-route air traffic flow management delays rose “dramatically” from 0.46 minutes to 1.05 minutes per flight. The largest driver was staffing and capacity (55%), followed by disruptive events (28%) and weather (27%).

Brennan liked the situation to an overflowing bath, where the effects are not linear once the system is full. He said, in 2018, the system is “very close” to spilling over. Last year, European flights were delayed by 9.3 million minutes, but despite just 3.4% anticipated traffic growth in 2018, delays are expected to increase by a massive 53% to 14.3 million minutes.

“The interesting thing about the European system is that it always gets rescued by recession,” Brennan said. Just as things were getting tight, traffic crashed after 9/11. The same happened again in 2008. “Now we’re coming to the top of the hill for the third time and we’re facing considerable delays.”

Even if there is just 1.9% average annual traffic growth between now and 2040, this will take Europe to 16.2 million flights a year—53% more than today, although this could go as high as 84% under the most optimistic scenario. Over that time, 16% more airport capacity is currently planned by the 111 airports that handle 84% of all flights, leaving a large shortfall.

“The top 20 airports plan to grow 28%, adding 2.4 million runway movement, but the reality is that—in Europe—that this is simply not enough,” Brennan said.

Eurocontrol’s “Challenges of Growth” study predicts that by 2040 seven times as many flights will be delayed between one and two hours, compared with today.

“Today 50,000 passengers are delayed one to two hours. Roll it on to 2040 and you’re looking at nearly half-a-million passengers delayed by nearly two hours. This situation is going to present a really significant challenge to your business plans,” Brennan said.

Brennan called on the industry to adapt, build more airside infrastructure, maximize the use and efficiency of existing facilities, optimize schedules, use larger aircraft, and deploy new technologies.

“We need to use the infrastructure that we have in a better way. We need to deploy different approaches in the air and on the ground. If we treat Europe as 28 individual states—and more represented by Eurocontrol—we can’t join dots. That’s why we need substantial change in way we manage air traffic in Europe.”

Victoria Moores