Air travellers in Europe face more “major” disruption in 2023, in part because the skies are more congested than normal following the closure of Ukrainian and Russian airspace, the region’s air traffic manager has warned.
Eurocontrol in late December warned that 2023 could be the toughest year in a decade for managing the region’s congested airspace as airlines start returning to pre-pandemic flight schedules.
“We anticipate a risk of major air traffic flow management delays,” the agency said.
Air traffic delays were just one part of a cocktail of problems that gripped airlines and airports over the summer as the industry struggled to handle the return of mass travel following more than two years of restrictions to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
Many large airports were forced to impose passengers caps, while airlines cancelled thousands of flights after concluding that industry-wide staffing problems meant they would be unable to fly their planned schedules.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is compounding the problem. With both Ukrainian and Russian airspace closed to European airlines, only about 80 per cent of normal airspace is available to fly in, said Andrew Charlton, managing director of consultancy Aviation Advocacy.
Charlton said this crowding would “add to the pressure on fragmented airspace”, given that there was no single European air traffic manager and planes were directed by a patchwork of national controllers across their journeys.
Airlines have long blamed politicians for failing to fully implement proposals for a “Single European Sky” to create a more efficient air traffic management system.
Eurocontrol said it was “working closely” with air navigation providers, airlines and airports to try to keep delays to a minimum, including reorganising some airspace and proposals to reroute some journeys.
As a result of this work, the performance outlook for 2023 was expected to improve, said Eurocontrol.
Eurocontrol forecasts a return to 92 per cent of 2019 air traffic levels this year thanks to strong pent-up demand for travel, up from 83 per cent in 2020.
But it warned this rapid recovery would present “huge challenges in terms of matching capacity with demand”.