Airlines for Europe (A4E) has renewed calls to speed up airspace modernization as structural air traffic control (ATC) issues—including capacity issues and staff shortages—have contributed to a 114% increase in airline delay minutes in the first half of 2019 compared with 2017.

ATC capacity and staff shortages were responsible for more than 70% of all en-route flight delays, between January and June 2019, resulting in 114% more delay minutes than in 2017, A4E said, which impacted the travel plans of around 25 million of its member airlines’ passengers this year. 

An A4E spokeswoman said there had been a marginal 10% improvement in network delays in the first half of 2019 compared with the first half of 2018 mainly because of better weather and fewer strike actions than in 2018, when Marseille ATC was striking every weekend for a month. “The network ATFM delays are still 114% higher than 2017 because the structural issues [capacity and staffing] have not improved,” she said.

The peak European summer season is underway, with the memory of widespread delays and disruption that characterized summer 2018 fresh in the minds of airline executives.

Las year, European travelers were subject to an unprecedented 19 million minutes of ATC delays and the action taken to avoid the known ATC bottlenecks in Germany and France led to longer flight times, additional fuel burn and unnecessary CO2 emissions, A4E said. 

“Persistent ATC strikes in Europe continue to compound existing structural issues and wreak havoc on airlines and their passengers.” 

ATC strikes continue to undermine future investments and improvements to Europe’s air traffic management system. In the meantime, A4E airlines are investing millions of euros in stabilizing flight operations to at least partially compensate for delays caused by air traffic control. It’s high time that all affected stakeholders work together to immediately put into place voluntary solutions, which would minimize the disruption and cost of these strikes on European airlines and our passengers,” Brussels Airlines CEO Christina Foerster said.

A4E has previously called for better strike notification and the protection of overflying to mitigate the impact of ATC industrial action, but longer term, speeding up wider airspace reform must be a priority, the association says. 

“The European Commission and the member states must implement the EU’s delayed seamless European airspace by allowing the recommendations from the recent Airspace Architecture Study to be fully realized. This would result in more efficient routings, quicker journeys and lower costs—not to mention a 10% reduction in CO2 emissions,” A4E managing director Thomas Reynaert said.

With a recent EU environmental report finding that network flight inefficiencies in 2017 caused a 5.8% increase in CO2 emissions, ATC inefficiencies are also causing unnecessary emissions at a time when aviation’s contribution to climate change is in the spotlight. 

“The modernization of Europe’s airspace is both urgent and long overdue, International Airlines Group (IAG) CEO Willie Walsh said. 

Walsh told a July 10 A4E press conference in Brussels that it was a “scandal” that airlines were emitting more carbon dioxide than necessary despite investments in modern equipment because of the delays in airspace modernization.

“We’ve got equipment on board today that will allow us to fly from point A to point B without any reference to ground-based equipment. We’re still flying airways that were designed in the 40s and 50s when you had to use ground-based equipment for navigation. The modern aircraft that we’re all of us are operating these days and the equipment onboard these aircraft are light years ahead of the airspace design. We’ve spent the money in the belief and the expectation that governments were going to deliver a Single European Sky.”

Helen Massy-Beresford, helen.massy-beresford@aviationweek.co.uk