Airline group faults Europe traffic controllers amid delays

July 18, 2018 - 8:55 am

GENEVA (AP) — Noticing more delays at Europe's airports? The leading trade group for global airlines is criticizing air traffic control agencies in Europe for seeking "super-normal profits" instead of investing to improve performance at a time when air travelers are facing longer waits.

The swipe by the International Air Transport Association, which called on governments to help resolve the "bottlenecks," comes after EUROCONTROL reported air traffic management delays this year have jumped 133 percent compared to a year earlier — reaching 47,000 minutes per day.

IATA said delays were mostly caused by staffing and capacity shortages, weather disruptions like thunderstorms and strikes such as those this year in France. Demand, too, has grown: Traffic is up 3.8 percent this year in Europe, and June 29 set a new one-day record for commercial flights on the continent: 36,825.

But the trade association, which counts some 290 airlines including giant carriers like Air France, British Airways and Lufthansa but not low-cost carriers EasyJet and Ryanair, largely pinned blame on air navigation service providers that direct air traffic.

The industry association is in essence accusing the air control agencies of sitting on mounds of cash at a time when needs have soared.

"Unfortunately, key ANSPs in Europe have not made needed investments in their businesses, preferring instead to make super-normal profits," IATA said in a statement. The largest ones, it said, had "either under-invested in staff" or used "outdated employment practices which don't deploy staff when and where they're most needed."

The increased flight delays in Europe are expected to continue throughout 2018.

"There is no quick fix for this year," IATA CEO Alexandre de Juniac said in a statement. "But the needed solutions are well known. With the correct investment and planning by governments and ANSPs we can, and must, make next year better."

IATA also said air traffic control agencies — many of them state-run — are actually making more profit than airlines. EUROCONTROL said European ANSPs have made an average of 9.6 percent earnings before interest and taxes in recent years, while IATA expects airlines will tally 6.4 percent EBIT this year, down from 6.8 percent last year.

Quentin Browell of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization, which brings together the air navigation service providers, rejected the claim that ANSPs were making "super-normal profits" — but defended their right to make a return.

"In principle, the fact that the majority of ANSPs are state-owned entities does not change the fact that a return on capital employed is also appropriate," he said in an e-mail. "Those who stump up the capital (whether state or private) need to be remunerated."

Browell said his group's members had invested 6.2 billion euros ($7.2 billion) between 2011 and 2016 to modernize and upgrade their air navigation services infrastructure. The group believes greater urgency is needed to create a "pan-European approach to airspace management" that could help reduce the growing delays.

"ANSPs in Europe are taking steps to reduce delays and improve efficiency, while further enhancing safety and striving to keep costs down for airlines and their passengers," he said. "ANSPs strive to keep costs as low as possible for their airline customers."

Plus, unexpectedly high traffic can't be resolved quickly, he said.

"Unexpected increases in demand often mean that (air traffic management) does not have the necessary capacity and staff to handle the extra traffic," Browell wrote, pointing to the need for long-term investment.

IATA countered that such investments should have been made earlier.

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