European air traffic delays hit a five-year low during 2002, but showed worrying signs of climbing through the second half of the year as traffic levels started to pick up.

Official figures for 2002 show that just under 20% of intra-European flights suffered delays in excess of 15min. That is down from 24% in 2001, and a record of over 30% in 1999 when the Kosovo conflict disrupted air traffic in the East.

Eurocontrol, Europe's air traffic management organisation, attributes at least some of last year's improvement to technical innovations, including the reduced vertical separation minima (RVSM) introduced at the start of 2002. Eurocontrol claims that there is clear evidence to show that capacity enhancements brought about by RVSM contributed to the "favourable results".

However, the Association of European Airlines (AEA) damns the improvements with feint praise. "The change was an example both of what can be achieved by pan-European co-operation and - given the length of time it took to implement - the difficulty of achieving progress within a fragmented European air traffic control system," it says.

The AEA adds that a breakdown of the quarterly figures shows a gradual deterioration throughout the year. In the second quarter, delays were down 9%, but slipped to 3.5% in the third and rose marginally in the final quarter.

"The implication is clear: the reduction in flying which took place after the events of September 2001 had a significant impact on infrastructure congestion. In the fourth quarter, however, the comparison was much closer to like-with-like - in fact, there was a modest increase in output from AEA members," says the organisation.

For its part, Eurocontrol points out that delays attributed to en route air traffic flow management were down by 29% at the start of 2003, against a January traffic increase of 5.6%. It adds that airport delays increased from 0.98min to 1.38min per flight for the month, and claims that it is airports that will be "the next constraining factor in the medium to long term."

The AEA says that slot delays are more likely to be caused by congestion en route or at the arrival airport, rather than the departure airport. The annual figures show that Madrid Barajas continued to be Europe's worst for departure delays in 2002, with 30.2% of flights delayed for more than 15min.


Source: Airline Business