The demand for European air connectivity continues to grow but bottlenecks are increasing, and the race is on to ensure the continent has enough capacity on the ground and in the sky, writes Graham Newton
European skies have never been busier. In 2018, EUROCONTROL reports that there were more than 11 million flights – an all-time record. In fact, 19 days saw in excess of 36,000 daily flights compared with no such days in 2017.
The growth wasn’t consistent across the continent. Germany and Spain contributed most to the hike in traffic, but the UK and Sweden recorded losses. Nor was the growth easily accommodated. Delays and cancellations in 2018 affected 334 million travelers. In all, there was more than 19 million minutes of en-route delay, meaning the average en-route delay per flight for the whole year was 1.73 minutes compared with the EU-wide performance target of 0.5 minutes.
Low cost growth
Even so, airlines are not waiting for the needed infrastructure improvements to grow their businesses.
The most aggressive attitude to market share – as might be predicted – is coming from the low-cost arena where less constrained secondary airports play a vital role. Wizz Air, for example, is growing its new base in Kraków, Poland, adding a third aircraft and launching six new routes to add to the 12 previously announced.
Birmingham, Eindhoven, Keflavík, Rome-Fiumicino, Tel Aviv and Turin are all being added the Kraków departures board during the year.
“We are very much looking forward to 2019 as we are entering the Krakow market and rapidly developing our local presence and route network, as well as steadily expanding our Polish operations, which now offers 169 low-cost routes to 28 countries,” says Stephen Jones, Wizz Air’s executive vice president and deputy chief executive.
The Ryanair Holdings Group also sees Poland as an opportunity for high growth. Ryanair Sun, a standalone business unit in the group with a Polish operating certificate, will rebrand as Buzz in the autumn. It will grow its fleet to 25 aircraft to serve both charter and Ryanair scheduled flights.
“We are excited to launch Buzz today, and to see our newly branded aircraft appear in Poland this autumn,” says Juliusz Komorek, chairman of the Buzz Supervisory Board. “Over the last 15 years, Ryanair has grown to become Poland’s biggest airline, thanks to the unbeatable combination of the lowest fares, best customer service and largest route network – and we now expect that Buzz will be Poland’s number one airline.”
The focus on Eastern Europe is not surprising given it is relatively underserved compared with Western Europe. Airports Council International (ACI) Europe figures show strong growth for many of the airports in the European Union’s eastern areas; Vilnius (+30.9%), Bratislava (+18.1%), Riga (+15.7%), Budapest (+13.5%), Tallinn (+13.4%), Warsaw-Chopin (+12.8%), and Athens (+11.2%) all posted double-digit increases in traffic in 2018.
Further west, easyJet is promoting its services from Manchester, UK. Three aircraft are being added to the fleet based there to serve Bari, Jerez, Kalamata and Nice. The new destinations will take easyJet’s Manchester network to 64 cities and is expected to add 50,000 passengers to the airport’s annual figures.Neil Slaven, easyJet country director UK, says the new aircraft follow on from its 2018 investment in Manchester. “Last autumn, we saw the delivery of two new aircraft to our Manchester base and look forward to the delivery of three more this summer, further reinforcing our commitment to the expansion of our Manchester operations and our ambition of always providing a great service and low fares,” he notes.
Meanwhile, many of the major, full-service carriers are concentrating on refining their networks and optimising their hubs rather than bullish expansion. As a case in point, Air France is increasing its summer schedule capacity just 0.5% over 2018 with many of its new routes being served by Air France HOP from regional bases.
The fact is that some of the major European hubs – Paris Chares de Gaulle and London Heathrow being obvious examples – simply cannot accommodate any significant rises in the volume of flights. Capacity is constrained across the continent as the 2018 summer delays highlighted.
There was little infrastructure development in the region in 2018 to remedy the situation. The major project was technically outside European borders as the New Istanbul Airport finally opened. The $11 billion venture is now fully operational following Turkish Airline’s weekend-long shift to the new facility in early April 2019.
Turkish Airlines is a major player in serving European travellers and the new airport will accommodate 90 million passengers a year. Turkish serves in excess of 100 destinations in Europe and Istanbul serves as a hub, particularly for Eastern European passengers.
There was some cause for optimism within European borders, however, thanks to the decision to expand Heathrow. Privatisation discussions in France and Portugal also hint at an understanding that something must be done to break the infrastructure logjam.
And, of course, new technologies and processes are playing an increasingly important role in maximising the airport footprint to handle the increase in passenger numbers.
“In the past five years alone, demand for air transport on our continent has increased by an impressive +36%,” notes Olivier Jankovec, Director General, ACI Europe. “This was primarily driven by improved economic conditions globally, low oil prices and airlines expanding capacity as well as airports actively supporting the further development of connectivity.
“Such growth has put significant pressure on airport staff and facilities,” he continues. “In that context, one could have expected service quality to tumble. On the contrary, what we saw was continued improvement. Indeed, it is quite remarkable that over those same five years, passenger satisfaction at Europe’s airports increased by +4.18%.”
Work on the ground must be matched by greater efficiency in the sky. European airspace continues to be fragmented despite years of work towards a Single European Sky.
Again, though, there are reasons to be optimistic. Progress was made on a number of ongoing projects, such as free route airspace. And there were longer-term initiatives to treat European airspace as a coherent whole rather than a set of disjointed flight information regions.
Notably, earlier in 2019 SESAR Joint Undertaking presented its Single European Sky (SES) Airspace Architecture study, which aims to define an efficient redesign for Europe’s skies. There is also a Wise Persons Group (WPG) working on short, medium and long-term solutions, mainly in the institutional and regulatory fields. Meanwhile, the third reference period (RP3) of the Single European Sky Performance Scheme – which will set ANSP performance targets – will come into force in 2020. All the work will inform a revised European ATM Master Plan.
The EUROCONTROL Network Manager “4 ACCs” (air control centres) initiative, launched in summer 2018 typifies the efforts being made to adjust European skies to the reality of high traffic growth. The initiative means the en-route flows through the centres’ airspace is viewed holistically, thereby increasing overall capacity and throughput.
EUROCONTROL also cooperated with the members of the iTEC Collaboration, which includes air navigation service providers (ANSPs) from across Europe, to jointly develop flight object manager (FOM) and system-wide information management (SWIM) services.
Sharing flight trajectories between ANSPs and EUROCONTROL’s Network Manager is required by the European Commission’s Pilot Common Project legislation. The joint development of the FOM and SWIM components enables this to happen.
“With Flight Object Interoperability, the iTEC partners are working together on technologies that are decisive for the future of the Single European Sky,” says Robert Schickling, chair of the iTEC Board/Steering Group and managing director operations of German ANSP, DFS. “All the air navigation service providers involved in guiding an aircraft from A to B will share all the information needed for this flight. This will mean they can jointly – in coordination with the Network Manager – make decisions at an early stage to enable the optimal route.”
Such enhancements will be sorely needed and must be matched by airport development. By 2037, it is forecast that 1.9 billion travellers will take to the skies annually in Europe, some 600 million more than today. There is no doubt that air travel is in demand. But there remains plenty to do if that demand is to be accommodated.
The European Commission has stated that it considers the lack of airport capacity to be among the biggest challenges facing European aviation. Yet State aid rules limit public financing and there is a lack of political will to invest in airport projects, anyway, given the “NIMBY” (not in my backyard) factor.
Accordingly, there has been a renewed focus on “user pays” principles. Naturally enough, airlines are reluctant to see increased charges – especially in advance of a new facility – but airports argue that the investment must come from somewhere. The EU Directive on Airport Charges does not yet clarify matters sufficiently.
Vienna Airport, for example, has stated that the policy options being pursued by the European Commission as part of their review of the airport charges directive are obstructing the delivery of their third runway.
In short, there is a danger of a disconnect between charges, investment and capacity.