It’s six weeks since air traffic pretty much disappeared from our skies and whichever flight tracking app you might use, you’re not seeing much on it any more. It was March 16 when flights across Europe suddenly started to drop way below the levels of last year, and within ten days had nosedived to the levels we’re seeing now.

For our air traffic controllers, it’s now like working a permanent night shift, bumping along at around 10% of normal traffic levels with the occasional blip up to 12% midweek and a slump to around 9% at weekends. Many of our controllers have been furloughed though, as key workers, it is important we rotate them through the operation and that we have an on-call shift in reserve at all times, to maintain resilience. And to be ready for a restart, whenever and however that might happen.

European air traffic as reported by Eurocontrol

The traffic they are handling is really important. In the early days of lockdown it was repatriation flights. Then it became about lifeline services and we’ve all seen media stories about flights from China bringing back PPE. The wider need for cargo flights is maintaining a level of demand.

We know that many of the scheduled flights which are operating, showing as passenger flights, are operating because of the cargo they normally carry in the holds and which they are also now loading into the cabin. Mail flights are continuing, and so are essential Islands connectivity flights with Aberdeen Other airlines are flying circuits from their airport bases – short flights at relatively low level to maintain the airframe airworthiness and also to maintain crew licences.

The otherwise quiet skies have made it easier to see Non Standard Flights – with survey flights for everything from pipelines to pylons,and general ordnance survey mapping flights which are always there, just not so noticeable.

A survey flight operating in west Scotland

This week WizzAir has resumed some flights at Luton and is planning more, and other airlines are apparently showing full cabins, but we’ve also seen other airlines saying that they will be cutting services, delaying the resumption of services and even closing some of their bases. Heathrow continues to be the busiest airport but this week has been handling around 150 flights instead of its usual 1300 while East Midlands, a largely cargo hub, has seen its flight numbers stay fairly stable throughout.

So planning for a wider restart and recovery is really tricky. Airlines are understandably holding onto their slots in the hope that operations can restart, and releasing them a week or two out when it’s clear they won’t be able to. That means that we are all the time planning to provide a service for those flights, which we’re required to do under the terms of our operating licence, only to see them evaporate at the last minute. At the moment there is little sign of countries lifting their flight restrictions, with most extended until the middle or end of May at the earliest.

This visualisation shows 7,492 flights operating on Wednesday 8th of May 2019 compared with 894 flights operating on Wednesday 6th of May 2020. This represents an 88% drop air in traffic.

Of course we are looking closely at the anticipated demand in the UK and modelling how that may develop. We are also part of the Network Operations Recovery Plan for the wider European industry which is seeking to ensure we have a consolidated European network view of how we can plan to deliver a safe service in the recovery phase to match the expected air traffic demand in a safe, efficient and coordinated manner. That work is being coordinated in the UK through the CAA’s Industry Resilience Group, and the Government has now established a Restart & Recovery Group looking at the wider implications for the UK aviation industry which we sit on.

The problem of course is that no one has the crystal ball which might indicate when the world might start moving again. We need to be sure that we are ready when it does. The airlines and the airports can’t operate without the support of safe and reliable airspace to support them.


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Excellent article.. even though sombre.


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