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Delays to holidays

There is one thing that all travelers – whether on a business or leisure trip – have in common: they all hate delays. No matter their final destination or how much they’ve paid for a ticket, it is difficult not to feel frustrated when stranded at an airport for hours. Last summer, that was the fate of thousands of European passengers: delays practically doubled, compared to 2017. This sharp increase in delays (as well as cancellations) is likely to continue this year. Worse, travelers were recently warned to expect chaos and ‘misery’ in the summer of 2019.

If you are packing your suitcase right now, you should probably keep in mind that every 5th flight in Europe will be delayed this summer, according to EUROCONTROL. 

But who’s fault is it? 

Some ideological airline CEOs have tried to blame this on striking or unproductive air traffic controllers (ATCOs). But the reality is more straightforward and less comfortable for airline executives. 

The entire system for managing Air Traffic in Europe is in urgent need of a revamp. It has reached a level where adding ever more traffic, more flights in the air is not sustainable and just leads to even more delays, cancellations and chaos. They call it the “capacity crunch”. Many politicians have tried to push reforms to create a single, high capacity, free flow airspace across the continent. And just as many politicians have pushed back against these reforms. As a result, the Single European Sky has made staggeringly little progress. 

But delays are not only caused by the air traffic management system per se. Delays are also caused by airlines themselves: for example, 44% of delays in July 2018 can be attributed to airlines. And then there is also the weather, which causes a third of all delays. Yet, some airlines seem to be blind to this and only fixated on ATCOs. At a recent press conference, they claimed weather delays are just misclassified ATC delays. 

If you are packing your suitcase right now, you should probably keep in mind that every 5th flight in Europe will be delayed this summer

Does this mean that airline CEOs are just ignorant about their own operations? Highly unlikely. They know very well what the root causes are and what can be done to spare passengers (and crew!) the ‘misery’. Some airlines have done what needs to be done: easyJet doubled the number of spare aircraft to 14, adjusted summer schedules and expanded afternoon buffer times for aircraft turnarounds. They also planned for additional crew on standby. Lufthansa cancelled 18.000 flights this year to be able to improve its flight predictability, added spare aircraft and hired additional staff to deal with disruption in their service centers. So far, the planning and investments seem to be paying off. But it costs money. 

Passengers may be interested to know that the ones who shout the loudest “It’s the ATCOs’ fault” are – not surprisingly – the ones who push the hardest with unrealistic flight schedules and few buffers. Their pilots are left to cope with the delays and make up for the system’s inefficiencies. They are expected to work harder, be permanently fit to fly regardless of sickness and to land safely – even after extending the legal daily maximum flight time up to 15 hours to accommodate those delays. And if you are a pilot falling sick during the summer, in certain airlines you may get a ‘special invitation’ for a meeting with management to explain why – and to promise ‘betterment’.  

The ones who shout the loudest “It’s the ATCOs’ fault” are the ones who push the hardest with unrealistic flight schedules and few buffers. 

For aircrew, delays are equally frustrating and tiring as for passengers, if not more so… If a holiday-maker might have to deal with 2 delayed flights this summer, most pilots would face this reality every day at work. There is no one to take over when your shift ends unless you arrive where you are supposed to and when you are supposed to, every day...

When these delays start to pile up, when days and nights are stretched to the limits, crew can end up simply unfit to fly safely because of fatigue. But some companies expect them to do so regardless. Coincidentally, the day of the press conference where airline CEOs decried again the ‘bad’ ATCOs, marked exactly one year since a major Low Cost Carrier threatened its crew in case something like THIS happens again:

"This behaviour is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated", "… dealing with delays is part of the job. If a crew member thinks that disrupting flights, cancelling people’s holidays is acceptable behaviour then they are not suited to this industry," said the memo to crew. The angry warning from management was triggered because of a Captain declining to fly beyond the legal time limits of his fatigued cabin crew. The cabin crew were fired shortly thereafter – obviously for unrelated reasons.

Dealing with delays is indeed part of the job in this industry. Some airline CEOs are clearly failing to do so.