Everyone remembers the severe disruption in April 2010 when Europe faced an unprecedented shut-down of its airspace, owing to the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland.
As a result, more than 100,000 flights were cancelled, some 1.2 million travellers were affected daily, 313 European airports were paralysed, losing close to €136 million (ACI Europe on 18/04). The International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported losses of $1.7bn for the airlines.
During the crisis, EUROCONTROL’s Central Flow Management Unit was instrumental in coordinating with all air traffic control centres, aircraft operators and experts across Europe, making sure that technical insights were shared and all relevant players informed of the evolving situation.
In the face of the crisis, a coordinated response was developed by EUROCONTROL, together with the European Commission, several European States, air navigation service providers and technical experts; it was agreed by European Transport Ministers. Rapidly, a revised harmonised European approach allowing flights – but only where safety was not compromised – was put in place across the whole of Europe’s airspace.
This recovery phase itself raised the major challenge of managing traffic flows, as the situation remained very fluid – both in terms of the demand for flights and the availability of airspace. EUROCONTROL’s CFMU demonstrated its ability to take on such a challenge and to do everything possible to ensure that aircraft were able to take to the skies safely.
Immediately after the crisis, EUROCONTROL, the European Commission, States, air navigation service providers, airlines and experts were already pooling information and making sure that the lessons learnt from the crisis were identified, shared and acted upon.
In May 2010, the European Commission (EC) and EUROCONTROL jointly established the European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell (EACCC) to coordinate the management of crisis responses in the European ATM network. In parallel, the Network Manager started developing internal arrangements to support the EACCC and management of disruptions and crises that adversely impact on aviation in Europe. Since then the Network Manager runs activities to be better prepared for future crises, such as crisis risk assessments and yearly exercises (a.o. exercises simulating cyber attack, volcano eruptions, nuclear incident, terrorist threat at airports).
In the earlier days, the CFMU played a key role in other crises. During the Kosovo conflict (from March 1999 onwards) the CFMU worked in close cooperation with ICAO, NATO, aircraft operators, ATC centres and airports to ensure the safe rerouting of traffic and to minimise the impact of the crisis.
Following the 11th September 2001 attacks, it was the key coordination point for all air traffic movements across the Atlantic and in European airspace. Working in close collaboration with the FAA Command Centre, the US government, military authorities and NATO, the CFMU was responsible for adjusting the traffic flows to the gradual re-opening of oceanic airspace. It was able to handle the crisis because at that time it already relied on unique, advanced tools and had excellent communication channels in Europe and in North America.
Ten years ago, in parallel to a political process that was ongoing with the idea of a dynamic network manager that would become a keystone in the European Commission’s Single European Sky (SES) initiative, the Agency merged air traffic flow management, airspace design, capacity planning and airport operations to have them organisationally linked for closer coordination between these activities.
In doing so, we brought together a variety of specialist skills: we united people who did airspace design, people who had skills in capacity planning, people who worked with airports and people in safety management. By putting them together, we could manage the entire process of flow and capacity management. It formed a ready-made organisation, able to take on the Network Management functions.
Then, in 2010, the volcanic ash crisis happened and it became clear to the aviation community that we at EUROCONTROL were the only ones who had the information, the systems, the communication channels and the organisation to manage crises on that kind of scale.
Our designation as the European ATM Network Manager came in July 2011, a role we had been preparing for over 15 years at that stage.
Our operationally-focused activities are considered essential in the orderly and efficient functioning of the European Air Traffic Services system. It must be emphasised that we are not the only ones responsible for the smooth running of the system. We work in permanent collaboration and close partnership with the air navigation service providers (ANSPs), airports, aircraft operators and the military.
With EUROCONTROL as the Network Manager, the wide range of skills that the Agency has at its disposal can be put to best effect. This fact was recognised by our governing bodies, which insisted that the network management function be applied to all our 41 Member States, not just the 28 that belong to the European Union.
We plan for the unexpected. We keep everyone informed about current issues and make sure that all involved take the decisions needed on the basis of constantly-updated and complete data. Every single thing we do is aimed at keeping the network running as best it can, for the benefit of all air passengers in Europe.
To be continued (March edition): 20 years of Central flow management: the CFMU becomes the Operations Centre of the Network Manager.