We don’t often find ourselves in the situation when we have to put on regulations – restrict the traffic flows – at airports where we provide the ATC, but it can happen when an unexpected staff illness reduces our Tower team to levels below what they need to operate normal service. Businesses everywhere have to deal with short-notice staff sickness, but it’s especially noticeable for us because it means aircraft can be delayed, or sometimes even diverted to another airport, and that means inconvenience to the airlines and to the travelling public.
Right now, our big challenge is volatility. We’re currently seeing 80%-90% of pre-pandemic traffic in the UK, but that traffic is both very ‘peaky’ and often presenting in places and at times that were not expected.
The latest forecasts suggest Europe’s summer traffic levels will be close to 85% of what we saw before the pandemic, with flight numbers even exceeding pre-Covid levels at certain times and in certain places.
The clocks have gone back and with that we’re into the winter flying schedule and what are usually the quieter months of the year once the summer season ends. And while the traffic volumes may have followed that annual trend, I’m really encouraged to see that traffic percentages are creeping up … slowly but surely.
Our latest data visualisation is a really stark illustration of how hard the industry has been hit by the pandemic and with the Government still considering its “traffic lights” system, the much-needed summer on which the industry has been pinning its hopes is starting to look more uncertain and ever further away. We are ready if and when we get the green light for international travel, but we desperately need clarity if the summer is to be saved.
It was the Roman philosopher and naturalist Pliny the Elder who said the only certainty is that nothing is certain. He would never know how many times he’d be quoted over the centuries, and it’s a truth we are grappling with right now as we try to plan our way out of the pandemic.
The general assumption is that traffic is likely to increase slowly through to the end of the year, but we have to be ready to handle traffic whenever it returns. There’s no way airspace can be a constraint on regeneration so that means careful planning within our operation.
Last summer, NATS handled almost a quarter of all air traffic in Europe and yet contributed just 2.6% to total delays, but airspace capacity continues to challenge operational resilience.
At the end of March, a revolution will begin in the skies over the North Atlantic, as for the first time in the history of air travel, earth orbiting satellites will be used to monitor and manage flights in near real-time.
On this morning’s Today programme on BBC Radio 4, their Business Editor asked Peter Bellew, the COO of Ryanair, why he thought NATS would discriminate against his airline, and Stansted Airport, to cause them unfair levels of delay. The short answer is that we wouldn’t, and we don’t, discriminate between airlines or airports.