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European Airlines Could Face Steep Operational Challenges in 2023

Jay Shabat
January 4th, 2023 at 10:41 AM EST

Europe’s air traffic manager, Eurocontrol, is warning of potentially “huge challenges” to the continued recovery of air travel on the continent this year. Matching capacity to demand, and keeping delays in check, will be the two biggest challenges the aviation ecosystem faces as schedules recover to roughly 92 percent of pre-Covid levels.

“2023 is set to be the most challenging year of the last decade,” Eurocontrol said in a newly published report. “Keeping summer delays down will be an immense task for all actors, with airspace issues due to the Ukraine war, extra aircraft in the system, possible industrial action, system changes, and the progressive reopening of Asian markets all asking real questions of the system.”

Eurocontrol expects flight activity to continue its march back to pre-Covid norms. But it won’t fully do so, it says, until 2025, according to its base forecast. In the meantime, the industry faces another year of challenges in 2023, with Russian airspace still closed, staffing shortages still an issue, a return of Covid travel restrictions still possible, and a European recession still likely. The return of demand from Asia, including China, will add further pressure.

The air traffic manager called 2022 “the year European aviation bounced back, despite war and Omicron/Covid,” in the report. The intergovernmental organization managed 9.3 million flights across the continent last year, equivalent to 83 percent of 2019’s figure. This was, however, up from just 6.2 million flights in 2021.

The report is filled with data and statistics on Europe’s airlines and airports. It shows Ryanair, for example, as the continent’s busiest airline last year, with 2,536 flights a day on average, or 9 percent more than it flew in 2019. Next on the list was EasyJet, whose 1,335 daily flights represented a 20 percent decline from 2019. Note that for this purpose, Eurocontrol counts airlines like Air France and KLM, or Lufthansa and Swiss, separately. Also note that its area of responsibility includes Turkey, as well as Ukraine and even Morocco. Turkish Airlines was in fact the third busiest airline last year behind Ryanair and EasyJet. Istanbul’s main airport, meanwhile, was the busiest in Eurocontrol’s area, surpassing even Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London Heathrow, and Paris Charles de Gaulle. Frankfurt was the busiest by flights in 2019.

Vueling, the Barcelona-based low-cost carrier owned by International Airlines Group, led all of Europe in on-time performance. SAS, KLM, and Ryanair were other operational standouts. But overall, “delays and punctuality across the network were worse than in 2019, as the speed of the summer recovery saw staff and capacity shortages across the sector.” Eurocontrol also blamed the closure of Russian airspace, which led to longer flight re-routings. Another issue was the increased military usage of European airspace. It attributed almost half of all delays imposed by air traffic control to “unanticipated staffing and capacity shortages at airlines, airports, ground handlers, and immigration.” Numerous airline and airport strikes did not help. Nor did “system implementations” at Eurocontrol’s area control centers in Lisbon, Reims, France, and Prague, Czech Republic.   

More precisely, punctuality rates across Europe were 6 to 7 percentage points worse than in 2019. During the peak summer months, a mere 40 percent of flights arrived on time. For all of 2022, the average arrival delay was 17 minutes, a third higher than in 2019. Put another way, Europe’s airspace handled 16 percent fewer flights last year than three years earlier but still, operational performance was worse. The continent’s airports, incidentally, handled 425 million fewer passengers than they did in 2019. Oslo stood out as the best performer operationally among Europe’s 20 busiest airports. Lisbon and Amsterdam were worst, depending on the measure.  

With 16 percent fewer flights, did airlines pay 16 percent less in navigation fees to Eurocontrol? Not quite. En route charges dropped only about 5 percent, to €7.5 billion ($7.9 billion). That reflects higher rates charged to airlines and other airspace users. Note that route charges are based on “service units,” which account for aircraft weight and distance flown, rather than number of flights. Unit rates are set to rise again this year, in part to recoup revenue shortfalls incurred during 2020 and 2021. Eurocontrol is a non-profit organization only partly financed by the fees it charges for its services. The majority of its funding comes from member country contributions.  

The report separately highlighted the wide variance in traffic trends across member countries. Greece, for example, saw more flight movements in 2022 than it did in 2019. This was true of only three other countries in the Eurocontrol network, namely Albania, Armenia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Portugal came close, and mild single-digit declines were likewise posted in Croatia, Turkey, and Spain, all large tourist markets. On the other end of the scale was Ukraine, which for obvious reasons suffered a 90 percent drop in flights. Europe’s two largest aviation markets, the U.K. and Germany, saw steep declines of 20 percent and 25 percent, respectively. Germany has been particularly slow to recover, with Dusseldorf and Munich noteworthy manifestations — their flight volumes were down 38 percent and 32 percent, respectively. The German market has outsized exposure to corporate demand, Russian markets now off limits, and slow-to-recover East Asian cities.  

Spain’s domestic market was Europe’s busiest, as it was in 2019. The French, Italian, British, Norwegian, and Turkish domestic markets came next in the rankings. Europe’s busiest international market was that linking the UK with Spain. As for flights connecting Europe to other regions of the world, the greatest number were to and from the Middle East, followed by North America and North Africa. Relative to 2019, Asia-Pacific flights were down by a third. This compares to a drop of just 9 percent for flights to and from North America. Middle East and North Africa flight volumes were each down 16 percent from four years earlier.

One silver lining to fewer flights is less carbon in the air. Airlines and other users of Europe’s airspace emitted some 35 million fewer tons of carbon dioxide in 2022 than they did in 2019. Nevertheless, as Eurocontrol admits, “if aviation is to remain on track to meet challenging sustainability targets, the pace of change needs to accelerate.” Airlines, for their part, often criticize Europe’s air traffic management, highlighting its alleged inefficiencies and blaming controller unions for blocking reforms that would streamline air routes and reduce emissions.

Jay Shabat
January 4th, 2023 at 10:41 AM EST

Tags: Europe

Photo credit:  Flickr / Marco Verch

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