Will there be extra air journey chaos this summer time? | EUROtoday

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By Katy Austin, Transport correspondent

Getty Images Montage showing aeroplanes and an air traffic control towerGetty Images

Picture this. You’ve reached the top of a much-anticipated vacation in sunnier climes with your loved ones in tow. It’s time to fly residence to the UK.

But whenever you attain the crowded airport, delays are beginning to construct. You wait and wait after which your flight is cancelled. Information is patchy. The airline ought to assist, however it appears overwhelmed – no one appears to know what’s happening. Alternative flights are getting booked up rapidly. So too are motels. You find yourself caught for days.

That nightmare state of affairs is what 1000’s confronted on the finish of August final 12 months, after an distinctive IT failure on the UK’s fundamental air visitors companies supplier Nats on a financial institution vacation Monday. About three quarters of 1,000,000 folks had been affected by cancellations or delays.

Last 12 months, excessive climate occasions, staffing points in some air visitors management towers and strikes in Europe all precipitated disruption. Overall, delays had been a lot worse in 2023 than earlier than the pandemic.

And in 2024, airports are anticipated to be even busier. Air journey is booming once more. More individuals are flying, regardless of notably increased fares.

So passengers might be forgiven for worrying about extra journey chaos – and asking what the trade is doing to deal with the problems which have have precipitated it.

Reuters Travellers wait near the British Airways check-in area at Heathrow Airport, as Nats restricts UK air traffic due to a technical issue causing delaysReuters

August 2023’s flight delays had been brought on by technical concern at UK air visitors management

It gained’t simply be issues from final 12 months that travellers bear in mind, both. In 2022, post-pandemic employees shortages throughout the trade result in chaotic scenes at some airports, and meant some airways’ deliberate schedules merely couldn’t be delivered.

Although the image thus far this 12 months is improved, simply previously week there have been examples of cancellations – an influence reduce at Manchester Airport, and yet one more staffing concern affecting air visitors management at Gatwick Airport.

When studying tales of journey chaos, it’s simple to overlook that issues go high-quality more often than not. The majority of flights occur as they need to. That’s no small feat when you think about what an unlimited and continuously shifting puzzle aviation is.

But when issues do go mistaken, for no matter cause, there’s not plenty of room for manoeuvre. Things can simply escalate.

John Grant, senior analyst at journey information agency OAG, says nonetheless arduous the trade tries, resilience is “always stretched”, as “there is no spare capacity in the system”. It’s an trade run on high-quality margins.

This 12 months’s excessive demand will probably be welcomed by airways, whose funds are regaining power after the pandemic. They make their largest income in the summertime.

But it additionally means much more strain on all components of the trade to ensure issues go to plan.

How busy will this summer time be?

According to aviation analytics agency Cirium, 282,207 flights are attributable to depart the UK over June, July and August.

That’s nonetheless barely under the 307,538 over the identical interval in 2019. But the full variety of seats accessible, and passengers at airports, is just about again to the place it was. Britain’s busiest airport, London Heathrow, is anticipating its busiest-ever summer time, with 30 million passengers – generally over 260,000 per day.

John Grant explains it is because, wherever potential, airways are utilizing barely bigger plane.

That means planes carrying extra fare-paying passengers, while not having extra pilots – who’re in excessive demand around the globe. At Heathrow, for instance, the common plane flown within the first three months of this 12 months was eight seats bigger than the identical time in 2019.

If you embody “overflights”, similar to these passing over to cross the Atlantic, the skies over the UK are very almost as busy as earlier than the pandemic.

Nats dealt with the equal of seven,340 flights a day in May. That’s 5.9% up on the identical time final 12 months. It’s anticipating summer time to be 10% busier than 2023.

There’s an analogous development at Eurocontrol, which organises the airspace over the entire of Europe. It expects 7% extra visitors this summer time than final 12 months, with some areas seeing 20% greater than earlier than Covid. At the identical time, European airspace remains to be squeezed as a result of Russia-Ukraine battle. Eurocontrol advised me it’s working with all its companions to “reduce the impact of bottlenecks” and “mitigate any disruptions”.

How will air visitors management cope?

Well-functioning air visitors management methods are essential to making sure all these flights occur safely and on schedule. Nats has been beneath the highlight following that incident final August.

From management centres in Swanwick, Hampshire, and Prestwick, Ayrshire, Nats manages the two.5 million flights per 12 months that cross the UK’s higher airspace – and a part of the Atlantic. The organisation additionally has a business arm that gives companies on the management towers of 15 UK airports, managing the ultimate approaches of planes as they land or take off.

At the Swanwick management centre, I meet Nats’ chief operations officer Kathryn Leahy. In the room the place we stand, all flight attributable to land at London’s a number of airports, together with Heathrow and Gatwick, are saved a protected distance aside earlier than totally different employees in management towers at airports take over for his or her last approaches.

At Heathrow, issues are significantly tight: a airplane lands or takes off each 45 seconds at peak instances.

Kathryn Leahy

Kathryn Leahy insists Nats is prepared for the summer time

“Busy hours are as busy as they were in 2019,” Ms Leahy says. “So for all intents and purposes we are back to normal.”

The IT failure final 12 months prompted stinging criticism from airways, who say the incident value them tens of hundreds of thousands of kilos. The automated system at Swanwick couldn’t perceive a part of an uncommon flight plan, and responded by shutting down. It took hours to rectify, leaving controllers to course of flight plans manually – a a lot, a lot slower course of.

When you consider the amount of visitors being dealt with, it’s clear why that had such a huge impact and why it took so lengthy to resolve. Trade physique Airlines UK has since branded Nats’ fundamental resilience planning and procedures “wholly inadequate”.

Nats has mentioned the very same concern couldn’t happen once more attributable to a software program repair that was discovered inside days and has promised enhancements.

Ms Leahy insists Nats is well-resourced for the summer time, with engineers, air visitors controllers and assistants on web site across the clock. “The priority has absolutely been making sure we’re ready for the demand that’s coming,” she says. She says “no organisation can confirm nothing will happen”, however factors out that since final summer time, numerous big-traffic days together with financial institution holidays have handed with out incident.

An interim report by an impartial panel discovered that communication points on 2023’s August financial institution vacation had “resulted in more uncertainty and more severe impacts on passengers and others than was necessary”.

Nats says not solely has it “renewed” its disaster response and engineering assist processes, however communication with airports and airways has additionally been improved – one thing that Ms Leahy says is essential.

Daily 16:00 conferences with them have been re-introduced for the primary time since earlier than the pandemic. “Demand and traffic for the following day, and known weather situations that might be developing” are mentioned, and another potential points flagged.

Nats staff member at Swanwick control centre

When occasions occur, “we are at the crow’s nest”, says Ms Leahy. “So having those calls, keeping our airline and our airport partners and passengers up to date is in our gift.”

The impression of surprising issues at busy instances might be likened to a lane being closed on the M25 motorway at rush hour: numerous visitors to handle, attempting to come back off at totally different exits. Congestion can rapidly seem.

The fundamental device Nats has to securely management conditions is called a “regulation”: this involves reducing the number of flights that can get into any given airport in a particular hour. It can switch off, and switch back on, the flow of planes.

Sometimes disruption is caused by something outside the aviation industry’s control. For example, a nationwide Border Force system failure earlier this year led to queues forming as E-gates stopped working.

Ms Leahy said it set up a team to monitor in case airports began to fill up with aircraft on the ground full of passengers unable to get off: “Where you’ve got airports that are full, all the parking spaces are full, you go into what’s called a mass diversion plan.” In the end, it wasn’t necessary to divert any flights – but that could have been the knock-on effect.

Analyst John Grant factors out there may be “little spare capacity at the big airports to accommodate if there’s disruption“ – so missing a designated slot can lead to a big delay.

Then there’s the ongoing issue of an international shortage of air traffic controllers. Staffing problems at control towers caused some disruption last year, particularly at Gatwick – where shortages have again caused cancellations this month.

Ms Leahy said the training of controllers had stopped during the pandemic, when not enough flights were in the sky for controllers to be trained in live scenarios.

She insisted the organisation’s training pipeline is now “as full as it possibly can be”, and described herself as “confident but not complacent” for the approaching summer time.

What about airlines and airports?

Nats is far from the only organisation focussing on resilience.

It’s a big theme for airlines like EasyJet, one of Europe’s largest. The summer peak is already here and the low-cost carrier is taking about 310,000 passengers on more than 1,900 flights each day. Its planes complete an average of eight flights per day and as many as 325 of them can be in the sky at a time.

If anything happens to leave aircraft and crews in the wrong place, the volume and complexity of the packed international schedule means disruption can quickly build up.

EasyJet’s operations are co-ordinated from its new expanded “Integrated Control Centre” in Luton. With the runway and air traffic control tower of nearby Luton Airport visible in the distance, I spoke to the airline’s Director of Network Control, Gill Baudot.

She said the business spends most of the winter learning from the previous summer. Measures EasyJet has focussed on include having enough standby crew available.

It has also built “firebreaks” into its programme. This means longer turnaround times than the usual 35 minutes on longer flights, Ms Baudot says, “so we’ve got more time to pick up from any issues… so we can get more of our aircraft away on time.” Otherwise, “once you start of go off schedule it’s really hard to bring it back”.

The airline says it now has 14 standby aircraft across its network. If a plane gets delayed early on, rather than letting delays accumulate over the day, a spare aircraft and crew can be “injected” to take on the second half of the programme.

Ms Baudot says that makes a huge difference, “because then you’re not over-running into the following day, you’re not ending up with very last-minute overnight delays or last minute cancellations”.

Post-Brexit rules are an additional complication, as UK and EU crews can’t operate interchangeably.

If flights have to be cancelled, the airline can see which ones have the most vulnerable customers or children on board, and try to prioritise.

It’s not all reactive. Tech tools can predict things like how air traffic control strikes in Europe might affect schedules.

Such strikes are common summer occurrence and likely again this year, although a new rule in France requiring 48 hours’ notice has made them easier to deal with.

A common complaint from passengers using any number of airlines is a lack of staff on the ground to help them. EasyJet says it has put more customer service staff in place at bigger airports.

Staffing is another area airports will have been focussing on.

Heathrow, for example, said it had increased the number of staff at terminals to help passengers, and invested in a team to help ground handlers – who are the airlines’ responsibility – with baggage so that baggage services are “robust”.

There’s still some concern in the industry about passengers’ understanding of carry-on liquids rules – and the potential for non-compliance to cause queues and even disruption.

Most major UK airports have kept the 100ml limit for containers in hand luggage for now, as the rollout of new high-tech scanners has been much delayed.

A number of smaller airports did install them on time, and scrapped the old liquids limit – only to be told by the government to re-instate it earlier this month, after new “information” was received about the equipment. It’s unclear how long that situation will last, and there’s already been confusion in some places.

What’s certain this year is that air travel is going to be busy.

However, what remains to be seen is where any problems will pop up this time – and if all the resilience measures the industry says it’s doing, will be enough.

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