Podcast: ATC's Summer of Discontent

Listen in as Aviation Week editors David Casey, Aaron Karp and Victoria Moores discuss instances of air traffic control (ATC) chaos in Europe and North America this summer, as well as how some air service providers and airlines are seeking to address the challenges head on.

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Rust Transcript


David Casey:

Hello everyone, and thank you for joining us for Window Seat, our Aviation Week Air Transport podcast. I'm David Casey, editor-in-chief of Routes. Welcome on board.

On last week's episode, I was joined by my colleague Victoria Moores, ATW's Europe and Africa Bureau Chief, to discuss the newly published NATS report into the UK's air traffic control meltdown, which saw more than 1,500 flights cancelled on one of the busiest travel days of the year. This week, we're continuing the conversation about ATC issues, and we'll be looking at some of the recent challenges in Europe and North America. To do that, Victoria and I have been joined by Aaron Karp, senior editor at ATW, who's based in Washington, D.C. Thanks for being here, Aaron. So let's start then in the U.S., which has seen a number of ATC challenges this summer, particularly in the New York area where many of the issues have been brought about by staffing limitations. So what's been happening there, Aaron?

Aaron Karp:

I was at the TakeOff North America Conference in Atlantic City, New Jersey last month, and Spirit's VP of Network planning John Kirby was there. And he was talking about the Jacksonville FAA ATC en route centre, one of 20 en route centres in the U.S. and it's responsible for 160,000 square miles of airspace, including nearly all of the traffic coming into Florida. And so he said ATC has been a real issue. The challenges at the Jacksonville Centre, he says are really problematic. He says he doesn't see any easy fix and he noted that the Jacksonville Centre controls all of the inbound capacity into the state of Florida, which is one of the most popular destination states for air traffic in the U.S. And airlines are expressing frustration because they say they're catching up with their staffing issues, but the FAA is not catching up with its staffing issues.

And also at the Takeoff Conference was Airports Council International North America Executive Vice President Matthew Cornelius, and he said that air traffic control is a fundamental infrastructure piece of our business and he's very concerned about the problems. It's not a new problem. And he said it is, quote, "now reached a critical stage and unfortunately like many other areas for commercial aviation, this isn't a quick fix. We have a serious problem." And one thing I should note is the Department of Transportation Inspector General put out a report this year saying that the air traffic control staffing level in the US is down 10% now compared to 10 years ago. And particularly now post-pandemic, the traffic is not 10% down. It's higher than 10 years ago and continues to grow. So I think that's just an obvious number that shows you how FAA ATC staffing is not keeping pace with the rise in air traffic.

David Casey:

Thanks for that, Aaron. So back to Europe, and we've also seen ATC delays this summer and the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers Association estimates that there is a shortfall of between 700 and 1,000 air traffic controllers in Europe, and that follows layoffs and recruitment freezes during the pandemic. Added to that, we've got French air traffic strikes, there's been various walkouts, which is nothing new there really, but also the war in Ukraine which has compressed the airspace available in Europe this summer. So Victoria, how much disruption in Europe has there been because of ATC issues this year?

Victoria Moores:

So I think the answer to that, David, is we've already seen considerable disruption from ATC this summer. I think I'm going to rewind a little bit back to April 2023. So earlier on this year, Wizz Air chief executive Jozsef Varadi said that last summer, summer '22 was crap. He was being very candid with his comments and he said that he was not overly hopeful that summer 2023 would go smoothly. And it was ATC that he thought was going to be a problem for all of the reasons that you just mentioned. So that was the fact that air traffic controllers, it's a three-year lead time to get them qualified. 20% of European airspace has been closed because of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. And also there's been an increase in military flight activity, so closed airspace for military manoeuvres. And sure enough, as we forwards wind into the summer, we saw that easyJet proactively cancelled 1,700 flights this summer, which is about 2% of its scheduled flights because of European air traffic control issues.

And then in the meantime, looking at the issue of strikes, which you mentioned there, Ryanair has been quite proactive on this, they just delivered a petition to the European Commission signed by 1.1 million passengers arguing that basically that the air traffic controls disruption isn't acceptable. Specifically, they don't like the fact that often European airspace is affected by national strikes, particularly countries like France that don't allow overflight of their territory. A lot of flights in Europe go over France, and when the French air traffic controllers are on strike, France has a minimum service provision. So they get to keep some of their domestic and scheduled flights, whereas other European countries are affected by national action by French controllers.

And what that's caused is that in the first five months of 2023, there were 57 days of air traffic control strikes and Ryanair said that's 10 times more than we saw in 2022. So sure enough, that was a prediction that things were going to be really difficult because of air traffic controls this summer has come true. The summer disruption that we saw last year was because of an influx of passengers. Everybody wanted to travel again and basically, it was a systemic problem within the airports where you didn't have enough security staff, ground handlers, those kind of issues. This summer, the focus has been much more on air traffic control

David Casey:

As well as those labour shortages though, ATC outdated technology is also a major challenge that the industry is facing. I know, Aaron, you've got some thoughts on this about how AI can help to improve efficiency and safety.

Aaron Karp:

So NAV CANADA is doing some interesting research into artificial intelligence and air traffic control with the idea to make the system more efficient. They've been doing some work with Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory, and they're trying to develop technologies that can manage capacity in challenging weather conditions in a more predictable way. So one thing, one example is that say there's a weather forecast saying tomorrow at Toronto Pearson Airport, there's a 70% chance of rain and a slight chance of a thunderstorm, whatever the weather forecast is, they're trying to develop a system so you could push a couple of buttons and see every time and say the last 30 years that there's been this weather forecast and how it's turned out, how it's affect the runway. And so that they can have an idea of, "Hey, there's a 70% chance that we'll be able to operate, but there's a ..." And they believe this will give much better decision making.

One of the things they pointed out is that the problem with weather is that airlines are using different weather systems often from air traffic control and by the time they realize there has to be something done in the airport, especially the long haul flights are already in the air. And so what that does is it affects the short-haul flights, which all gets cancelled and that disrupts the domestic traffic. So they're trying to work through that. Another thing NAV CANADA is doing is building a digital twin of the airspace. And so this would essentially be the airspace around Toronto Pearson, you continuously have a digital twin and you could constantly be trying things out on the digital twin and simulating days and that they think will also help with efficiency.

The bottom line for all of this now, NAV CANADA and others that are working on this stuff will say, "Well, this is about helping the controller making better decisions. And it's about using systems that can monitor things and scan things and gather information faster than a human could, but the human is still making decisions." And I think that's the way it'll be for a while. But I think the larger idea here is how to operate air traffic control more efficiently with fewer people because I think there's a realization that longer term we can do all the hiring and training we want, but we just might not have enough people with the rate of growth. And we've got to figure out technological solutions that can make the airspace safer, more efficient, with not as many people required to operate it.

David Casey:

Interesting stuff. And it's not just navigation system providers that is working on technological solutions like this. I know Ryanair, you've talked about them already, Victoria, but they've got Ryanair Labs and they're developing their own in-house technologies. Can you tell us a little bit about that please?

Victoria Moores:

Yeah, sure. Ryanair Labs is basically a technology centre that was created in Dublin by Ryanair quite a few years back. And the way that Michael O'Leary described the rationale behind the creation of Labs was that he said, "Back in the day, they used to go to airlines like Lufthansa to develop their IT systems, but that was when Ryanair carried around 5 million passengers and Lufthansa was carrying about 40 million. Well, today Ryanair carries about 200 million and Lufthansa is about half that many." So this is what O'Leary said, he said, "The challenge for us going forwards is that nobody has developed systems for an airline that now has nearly 200 million passengers with a plan to go to 300 million passengers. So we've got to do it ourselves." And basically, he said that this Lab Centre has been really visionary. It's been one of the great sea changes in Ryanair's development.

Now, flipping that back to our current conversation about operational disruption, operational reliability, the team in Labs says 1,000 people have been working on various IT infrastructure projects, but they're also working on operational resilience. So a reminder that Michael O'Leary is the Group CEO of Ryanair, the CEO of Ryanair's Irish airline is Eddie Wilson. Now, what Eddie said on a recent call was that about five or six years ago, they would have had meltdown days, but now they're able to control those days in advance, use these technologies to really manage crews. He said, "We don't just throw bodies at it anymore. They use these systems to really monitor the operational resilience of the system. They're using additional standby crews and they're using that to protect themselves against air traffic-related cancellations by basically having a really smart system trying to control everything that's within their control."

And they didn't mention names at the time on that call, but I think they were pointing to the fact that their competitor easyJet has been forced to cancel over a thousand flights because of air traffic control issues, whereas Ryanair hasn't had to cancel as many flights because of air traffic control issues, however, they are cancelling flights because of aircraft delays. That's another discussion, but yeah it really does show that airlines are trying to use technology, leverage technology to manage anything that they can, and to keep life smoother for the passenger because I think ultimately that's the bottom line of this conversation. Every single day I see articles which are absolutely slamming airlines for disruption, for problems, for not caring for passengers, and there's a perception issue around airlines and all these conversations about passenger rights, compensation, delays, ATC failures, everything else. A lot of that is projected onto the image of airlines themselves and the passengers aren't happy.

Aaron Karp:

I was just going to say in the US there's been sort of an ongoing battle between the Department of Transportation, particularly Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and the airlines in sort of pointing fingers at each other and the airlines saying it's ATC. FAA saying, "Well, we acknowledge we have issues, but the airlines have issues too." And so there's been this constant, I'd say for about six months now, finger-pointing back and forth where the airlines are trying to shift blame and FAA is trying to shift blame. Everyone shares blame, but you see people trying to say, "Well, it's the airline industry, they have issues." And the airlines are saying, "Well, look at the numbers, look at the staffing issues." And so there has been this back and forth often publicly in the media between the DOT and airlines going on for several months. And that's part of the story in the US.

Victoria Moores:

And if I just cut in there as well, Aaron, similar conversation back and forth, I think it's less amplified perhaps than it has been in the States recently. But one of the commentaries I've heard is that there's a danger that this increased focus and emphasis on passenger rights, rules, and penalizing the airlines, getting them to pay compensation care and assistance, that what that does is it actually shoots the passenger in the foot metaphorically, because airlines may be encouraged to cancel flights because they don't want to have to pay for unlimited care and assistance. And there's also the question, I don't think it would be a question for many airlines because safety has to be the focus that at what point of paying huge care and assistance bills or huge compensation bills, do you decide that an aircraft is okay to fly? No amount of money is worth the reputational damage and the cost of an air accident, but it does create those questions of if there's a huge penalty, what's the knock-on effect of that? What happens that's possibly unintended?

David Casey:

Absolutely. Thanks, Victoria. So just before we finish then, to sum up in terms of the disruption that we've seen during the northern summer 2023 season, has it been lower than perhaps was predicted and how was it compared to summer 2022 when we saw lots of delays and mass cancellations of flights?

Aaron Karp:

I would say in the U.S. it has been better, particularly because the airports have in a lot of ways caught up with staffing. Airlines are catching up with staffing, but there are still disruptions like we've been talking about with ATC. Anytime there's a weather event, it causes disruptions. There's a lot of weather events in the summer, particularly in Florida. You still have the supply chain issues with aeroplanes getting to airlines, but I think it's been better this summer and there's a perception it's been slightly better, but the problem with airlines is one person has a terrible experience, and particularly in the social media age, numbers-wise, it doesn't matter if you're a little better, it's all about the perception.

And I think just in having conversations, casual conversations with people, there's a lot of ... People have asked me, "Oh, should I fly?" Because they see all these delays and they see all the hassle and they say, "Is it worth it to fly? Am I going to book a flight and it's not going to work?" And so people in the public in their mind, is they worry about the system and that it's overstressed.

David Casey:

And in Europe, Victoria, should people fly?

Victoria Moores:

That's a really challenging question. Actually, I think that the word challenges sums it up for me. I think that summer 2023 has had different challenges to summer 2022. Perhaps the summer 2022 issues that came up, those airport issues, that sort of capacity issue in terms of the air transport system, I think that that was much more controllable, although it was ramping up from a completely uncontrolled situation during COVID. So I think it was exceptional but potentially controllable. I think that the issues that we've seen this summer have been much less controllable. So airlines don't have any power over whether or not there's air traffic control delays. And also I think it's really important to factor in the environmental issues that have come up this summer. So when there's been widespread cancellations because of the wildfires, the fires in Greece, and issues like that, that's causing operational disruption a little bit like Aaron said, with the weather-related delays.

So I think it's becoming increasingly hard to mitigate these things as you're seeing increasing capacity and global warming. I think airlines are doing the best job that they can. I think that they don't know what's going to happen next. Again, Michael O'Leary said that he's sure that something is going to trip up industry growth over the next 10 years. He just doesn't know what the crisis is yet. So I think that that's my take on it. I've got a vague sense and it is just a gut feeling that it has been slightly better, but I guess the figures at the end of the summer will tell a full story.

David Casey:

Okay. And perhaps when those figures are out, it's probably worth us getting together and having another chat on Window Seat. But Victoria and Aaron, thanks for joining me today. It's been great to hear your thoughts about some of the air traffic issues that have been affecting airlines and passengers on both sides of the Atlantic. Thanks to you, our listeners, and to our producer, Cory Hitt. If you enjoyed this podcast, make sure you don't miss us each week by subscribing to Window Seat on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. This is David Casey signing off from Windows Seat.

David Casey

David Casey is Editor in Chief of Routes, the global route development community's trusted source for news and information.

Aaron Karp

Aaron Karp is a Contributing Editor to the Aviation Week Network.

Victoria Moores

Victoria Moores joined Air Transport World as our London-based European Editor/Bureau Chief on 18 June 2012. Victoria has nearly 20 years’ aviation industry experience, spanning airline ground operations, analytical, journalism and communications roles.