On the right track30 December 2020
The Covid-19 pandemic led to a rapid decrease in the volume of air traffic throughout the world. How should air navigation service providers best manage a return to normality? And what could that return look like, especially if there’s an upsurge in demand for flights following the discovery of a viable vaccine? Abi Millar talks to Simon Hocquard, director-general of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation, and Razvan Bucuroiu, head of network strategy and development at Eurocontrol, to learn more.
Undoubtedly 2020 has been a year like no other for the aviation sector. As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold across the world, and lockdowns and travel restrictions were imposed, air traffic practically ground to a halt. Global passenger numbers dipped by around 80% in the first few months of the crisis, with many people living on flight paths commenting on the eerie absence of aircraft in the sky.
According to Eurocontrol, the darkest day for the industry was 12 April, when just 2,099 flights took to the skies across its network. Flightradar24 tracked 46,294 flights globally that day, the lowest figure in many years. It states that commercial flights were down 73.7% that month, compared to April 2019.
While the industry rebounded to some extent over the summer, rising to about 50% of last year’s levels, flight patterns over the months ahead remain a topic of deep uncertainty. As the world anxiously awaits the rollout of a working Covid-19 vaccine, it’s impossible to say how long the dip in air traffic will continue, or what kind of ups and downs are likely to happen along the way.
As Razvan Bucuroiu, head of network strategy and development at Eurocontrol, explains, the pandemic has forced a profound shift in passenger behaviour. “Before, the average lead time for booking a flight was eight to ten weeks, but now we’re talking about an average lead time of three to four days,” he says. “It’s very difficult for airlines to decide which adaptations they need for their schedules because they don’t have any longer-term views on what the potential passenger demand could be.”
The upshot was that, as of 25 September, a month before the start of the winter schedules, carriers had not yet fully updated air traffic management bodies on when they would be flying their aircraft. When quarantine rules can change at a moment’s notice, the usual methods of planning do not apply.
“Restoring public confidence in flying is one of our industry’s most pressing challenges right now,” says Simon Hocquard, director-general of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (Canso), one of the key voices for the air traffic management sector. “We need to demonstrate that it is still safe to fly, and work together on a solution to improve the dependability of travel. Unfortunately, I believe this volatile situation will remain until we find a vaccine or until we introduce more widespread testing.”
It has been a testing few months for organisations like Eurocontrol and Canso. However, it has not been a time for despondency. Rather, it’s been a time to plan, coordinate and cooperate. “Until we have a vaccine, Canso will keep advocating on behalf of the industry, collaborating with key players in the aviation system to get the industry back on its feet and sharing vital information to help support the industry’s recovery,” says Hocquard. “And it’s not just organisations like Canso that can facilitate aviation’s recovery. Governments also have a crucial role to play. Of all parts of the economy, aviation is one of the hardest impacted by the pandemic, so the sooner we can get the industry back up and running at full tilt, the sooner it can play its part in boosting economic growth.”
During the early days of the crisis, the first priority for air navigation service providers (ANSPs) was safeguarding employees. This meant quickly deploying new hygiene and distancing measures, and switching to more dynamic forms of rostering.
“Unlike other industries that were able to pause operations as the pandemic spread, ANSPs are a critical national infrastructure with a mandate to keep skies open for the transport of essential goods and services,” points out Hocquard. “The next big challenge was dealing with the business impact of the pandemic. The drastic drop in traffic resulted in a revenue shortfall for many ANSPs.”
This business impact, which has rippled across the entire air traffic management supply chain, is still being felt today. Airports, airlines and ANSPs are making losses, and the entire industry is grappling with a lack of liquidity in the system.
“Restoring public confidence in flying is one of our industry’s most pressing challenges right now. We need to demonstrate that it is still safe to fly, and work together on a solution to improve the dependability of travel.”
The road to recovery
It will be crucial to cut costs judiciously in the short term, without damaging capacity over the longer term. After all, as and when a Covid-19 vaccine becomes available, we can expect air traffic volumes to rebound. This could prove disastrous for airports and carriers that have, for example, laid off staff or reduced overall capacity.
Bucuroiu strikes a note of optimism here, pointing out that present indications look promising. “ANSPs have been constantly adapting their service to the exact air traffic demand,” he says. “The proof is that, during this period, we did not have disruptions or system delays caused by the crisis. When the effects of Covid-19 have disappeared, the traffic demand will return extremely quickly, and all the coordinated actions we’ll need are already in place.”
Skill erosion may pose another challenge. It’s possible that air traffic controllers, who previously handled very complex traffic flows, could lose some proficiency during this period. Hocquard suggests using simulators to ensure they maintain their skill levels. “Canso has partnered with Micro Nav to make their ‘BEST’ ATC simulator platform available to build air traffic controller confidence,” he says. “This innovative cloud-based platform enables controllers to hone their skills from the comfort of their own homes.”
Hocquard adds that, while cost cutting must be at the forefront of recovery strategies, we need to ensure we don’t compromise the industry’s advancement over the longer term. That means striving for safety, efficiency and sustainability – and, above all, harnessing innovation.
“There’s no doubt that the pandemic will have a lasting impact on our industry,” he says. “But as well as the obvious challenges, there are also opportunities. Could we find new ways of generating and approaching investment, new supply chain possibilities and new models for operation? Will it cause us to shift our outlook from fixed borders and territories to a more network-focused approach?”
According to Canso’s director-general, the sector would be wise to consider fast-tracking some new technologies with a view to improving operations. What’s more, it should also harness that spirit of collaboration, so evident throughout the crisis, to push forward data-sharing initiatives like SWIM and A-CDM.
“We need to work together across the entire aviation industry to create a blueprint for our future skies, enabling the safe integration of new airspace users such as drones and space vehicles,” says Hocquard. “And we need to advance cross-industry conversations to progress our thinking and design the regulatory frameworks that will govern operations. Another big challenge facing our industry is climate change. As aviation rebuilds, we must do so in [an] environmentally sustainable way.”
A better future
It may seem glib to talk about the positive impacts the pandemic has had on the sector, given the ongoing difficulties ANSPs continue to face. However, there can be no doubt that this is a period of recalibration that could have real benefits if harnessed correctly.
Bucuroiu thinks the industry has learned a lot throughout this period and has even begun to shift some of its deepest underlying assumptions. “We have always addressed the air traffic management network from a growth point of view, saying the traffic will grow and we need to adapt the network to be able to accommodate this growth,” he says. “The reality of Covid-19 was that traffic might also go down, and severely go down – we never had this even after 9/11 in 2001 or the financial crisis in 2008. So what that shows is the system needs to be more resilient, scalable and efficient in adapting itself.”
Air traffic volumes will come back in future – that much is probably a given. However, it is up to the industry what kind of ‘new normal’ they will occupy. This ongoing traffic downturn could be purely detrimental, if we let it. Or it could be a period to plan for the future and focus on key developments. “We’re working together now on major airspace changes to be implemented over the next five to seven years, which will make the overall network more efficient, and harmonise operations and technical infrastructure,” says Bucuroui. “It would be a pity, when the traffic is back to normal, not to offer more efficiency in the European network than what we had in the past. It’s also a period when there are human resources available who could be part of the evolution of those projects.”
Hocquard agrees that this could be a formative period for aviation. We don’t know how long it will take for a Covid-19 vaccine to become available, and for the industry to recover. But we do know that, the longer the traffic downturn continues, the more pressure there will be to emerge a different industry.
“We need to keep working together,” he says. “Collaboration has been critical during the pandemic and the restart, and it will be even more crucial in the future. As we turn our minds to the future and to recovery – now more than ever, it is vital that we stand strong as an industry – to build a better future for aviation.”
Decline in European air traffic volumes in April 2020.