There is no magic bullet to an air traffic controller shortage in the heart of Europe.
The morning of Monday, July 24, did not start out well for Swiss International Air Lines. Thunderstorms — the bane of all airline operations — hit its home base of Zurich a little before 7 a.m. local time and temporarily halted flights at the airport.
The ground stop delayed many of Swiss’ first flights of the day from getting out on time, and that cascaded into what Head of Operations Steering Mark Ansems said was the carrier’s “worst” operational days of the summer so far. Additional thunderstorms, and ground stops, throughout the day only exacerbated the situation. The result was roughly 60% of all of Swiss flights operating at least 30 minutes late and 7% cancelling.
“There was no way to recover,” Ansems told Skift. “What happened that day is an unacceptable figure.”
Swiss, and all European airlines, face more challenges than just weather this summer. A shortage of air traffic controllers across Europe is contributing to an increase in flight delays that are affecting travelers across the continent and costing airline millions of euros.
Air traffic flow management, or ATFM, related delays — or when air traffic is limited through a certain area of the sky — were the second largest contributor to flight delays in June and July, according to data from European airspace manager Eurocontrol. The duration of these delays increased 6% from last year. Airline-specific issues were the number one cause of delays, the data shows.
At the same time, air traffic — measured in number of flights — was up 7% year-over-year in June and July, Eurocontrol data show, though still down from 2019.
“Seasonal weather, ATC capacity and ATC staffing delays strongly influenced en-route ATFM delays across the network,” Eurocontrol said of the situation at the end of July when Swiss’ operations fell into disarray.
Ryanair Group CEO Michael O’Leary, speaking in July, put it more bluntly: “ATC is a shambles. They are short staffed, particularly at weekends.”
The situation is hardly isolated to Europe. Airlines face similar air traffic control staffing-related delays in Canada. And in the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration asked airlines to reduce schedules by up to 10% in New York this summer as it faces a severe shortage of air traffic controllers. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in May that it would be a “while” before the FAA achieved target staffing levels, and the agency recently extended its voluntary flight reductions in New York through October.
Around the world, many — though not all — countries halted hiring and training of new air traffic controllers during the pandemic. That, coupled with early retirements in some places like the U.S., contributed to the shortage that air traffic organizations face today. Hiring and training new controllers is a lengthy process that takes several years of classroom, simulator, and on-the-job training.
Issues in the Heart of Europe
The staffing shortage appears worst in France and Germany, two countries at the heart of Europe’s air traffic control system. While two of the continent’s busiest markets in their own right, many flights between northern and southern Europe — like Oslo to Barcelona or London to Nice — must fly through their airspace.
And when a plane passes through a country’s airspace, it is subject to the local air traffic control organization’s jurisdiction. Thus, if Germany implements an air traffic flow management program, both flights over and to the country are subject to delays.
“We’re in the heart of Europe, and at the center of the staffing shortage,” Ansems said. Thanks to geography, many of Swiss’ flights must overfly either France or Germany, which border Switzerland to the west and north. That makes the staffing situation in those countries a big issue for the airline, which is owned by the Frankfurt-based Lufthansa Group.
Ansems would not put a number to how much flight delays and cancellations have cost Swiss this summer. However, it is expected to be material to its results. Group CEO Carsten Spohr, speaking during its second quarter earnings call in July, said that air traffic control and other industry constraints would limit growth through at least 2024. Lufthansa and its subsidiaries, including Swiss, only forecast recovering to roughly 85% of 2019 capacity this year.
Less growth could mean higher airfares if travel demand remains strong, but also translate to higher costs for airlines — especially those like Lufthansa that have added staff to improve operations.
The increased hiring followed chaos last summer when staff shortages forced some airports, like Amsterdam’s Schiphol, to implement strict capacity caps and carriers to slash schedules to meet the new limits. But no matter how much airlines or airports hire, the level of air traffic controller staffing has a direct impact on the number of flights they can operate.
“Airlines and airports worked hard to ensure that sufficient resources would be provided to minimize disruptions and get travelers to where they need to be on time,” said Wille Walsh, director general of airline trade group IATA, in a recent statement. “Lack of ATC resources nationally — particularly in Germany and France are preventing that.”
European air traffic organizations, which are often run by individual countries, are roughly 700 to 1,000 controllers short of target staffing levels, International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers’ Associations (IFATCA) Executive Vice President Frederic Deleau, who is based in Brussels, said. The group represents air traffic controller associations in Europe and around the world.
“We do have a shortage of controllers in Europe,” he said. “It’s not as critical as in New York, or in Canada.”
Deleau said too little recruitment during the past decade, plus early retirement packages offered to some controllers during the Covid crisis, contributed to the current situation.
However, the shortage is worse in some countries, like France and Germany, and better in others. And controllers in areas with enough or surplus staffing, for example in Estonia where the number of flights is down significantly thanks to Russian airspace restrictions, cannot simply move to countries where they are most needed. Technology and other systems differ from organization to organization even though all air traffic controllers meet the same European certification standards, Deleau said.
Conversely, places like Croatia and Slovenia are seeing air traffic levels well above pre-pandemic levels thanks to the boom in travel to Mediterranean beaches and the rerouting of flights that otherwise would have flown over Russia. That is stressing their controller resources that otherwise may not be experiencing a shortage.
Swiss is confident that flight delays, which affected one out of every four flights it flew this summer, are on the decline. Head of Operations Oliver Buchhofer pointed to a better weather forecast for August, and more buffer in its own operations for the outlook. The airline is also doing more to notify travelers of flight delays and cancellations, including preemptive delays if weather is forecast the next day and push alerts on its app.
The airline targets an 88% on-time arrival rate in the coming months, he said. This compares to just 57% of flights arriving on time during the month ending August 15.
“Punctuality must be better in the upcoming months and years,” Buchhofer said. “And that is something we cannot solve by ourselves alone.”
Without additional air traffic controllers in France, Germany, and other markets where air traffic is up significantly, airlines like Swiss cannot expect big improvements. The situation is likely to ease this fall when airlines typically schedule fewer flights following the summer peak. But, with staffing still an issue, there will remain little slack in the system in the event of weather or, say, a controller calls out sick at a key center.
“There are no magical tricks at the moment,” Deleau said of the situation. He estimated that it will take at least 3-4 years to ease the shortage of air traffic controllers in Europe.
Photo credit: Swiss planes parked below the control tower at the Zurich Airport. (Flughafen Zürich AG) Flughafen Zürich AG