Air traffic is quickly recovering from COVID slowdowns, but
monthly, weekly, and even daily operations are volatile. Centralised analyses
and forecasts are still taking a helicopter view of the market, averaging out
demand percentages across a wide geographic area that can’t be used for
operational planning at a local level.
During a Wednesday afternoon panel, global industry executives
discussed how best to analyse the current vehicle traffic data, and how that
data can improve in the future.
“We’re used to measuring traffic in figures, but what does
it tell us? Five percent more, 10 percent less, what does that mean?” moderator
Roland Beran, FABEC, asked the panellists.
In Italy, there was an unexpected peak of air traffic in the
summer of 2021 that was higher than in 2019, said Paolo Nasetti, ENAV (Blue Med
FAB). Because of this type of volatility, he said there’s a need to share
trajectory information, including inputting information directly into the plane.
“But the current system isn’t ready to have this change of
information,” he said. “We need something different from what’s reported on a
weekly basis. We need to know how traffic is going to move.”
In the Central and Eastern European area covered by FAB CE
Aviation Services, “everything is different this year,” said Matej Eljon, FAB
CE director. “Volatility is day-to-day.”
For instance, he said, restrictions in Belarus and even the
Middle East have affected air traffic in Slovakia. But resort areas like
Slovenia and Croatia had high levels of leisure traffic in the summer, at rates
near 2019 levels.
Air traffic throughout the region hasn’t dropped in October,
as was expected, Eljon said. “It was difficult to understand where it came
from, until we discovered that the air traffic was replacing bus traffic.”
In Poland, airlines have been flexible about opening routes,
but there’s a need to get more information from aircraft registration, said Michal
Mikolajozak, PANSA (Baltic FAB).
“If we know traffic is delayed from A to B, then we know
what will happen from C to D. If we expect a peak at 2 p.m. and something goes
wrong in the network, the peak could be delayed to 4 p.m.,” he said. “We need
to deliver this information to our customers, the airlines. We need to connect
the airports to deliver data that would allow us to forecast based on live
traffic. But now, we don’t know where the aircraft is until it takes off, and
then it’s too late.”
However, acquiring this information is easier said than done.
Air navigation service providers (ANSPs) can take months or even years to make
changes, Mikolajozak said. “We are not as flexible as users require.”
In pre-COVID Germany, a two percent increase in air traffic
was considered to be volatile, said Dirk Mahns, DFS. Now, volatility is day by
day, and even hour by hour.
“It’s a challenge to deal with this new situation,” he said.
“Peaks used to average 30 percent; now they can be 110 to 120 percent in some
Volatility issues are much the same in the United States as
they are in Europe, said Brian Bruckbauer, ATCA. The U.S. ANSP, FAA, is not funded by user fees, and was, unlike other ANSPs, able to continue operations without having to furlough or lay off controllers. But the FAA faces significant challenges with the federal appropriations process, making it difficult to depend on and stably fund its programs. But the U.S. has additional
volatility in its federal government and budgetary process, making it difficult
to depend on and fund Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) programs.
Increases in cyber threats have also had a direct effect on
U.S. transportation systems, including getting fuel to airlines, Bruckbauer
said. More weather events create issues with air travel, and testing of new
military systems takes a significant amount of airspace.
“There are some positive things as well,” he said. There’s
been a huge increase in commercial space launches, and the FAA is making sure
these launches work in harmony with aviation. “The FAA is also working hard to
talk to additional users coming into the airspace and reduce the volatility
associated with that,” he said.
Bruckbauer said throughout his career, he’s been a huge fan
of data analytics. In the future, he envisions that tools like artificial intelligence and machine learning can help provide accurate data that can be used to adjust staffing
levels, air routes, or other metrics. “The future holds a lot of promise in
that arena,” he said.
In response to a question from Beran about how COVID
shutdowns have affected their country’s air traffic control staffing, panellists
generally agreed that while some controllers retired or left during the last
year, recruiting is now underway for additional controllers.
Some ANSPs are also offering additional training for
controllers. “We found that people didn’t feel as confident as they did when
they were handling the loads of traffic in 2019,” Mikolajozak said.