The aviation capacity crunch

Posted: 16 February 2015 | Joao Aguair Machado, European Commission Director-General for Mobility & Transport

João Aguair Machado, European Commission Director- General for Mobility and Transport, looks at what needs to be done to accommodate continued growth in the commercial aviation industry.

Commercial aviation has been a growing market ever since the first passenger flew on an aircraft on 1st January 1914. One century later, this industry has grown to an extraordinary extent, allowing about eight million travellers to quickly commute to the four corners of the world every day. Globally there are nearly 100,000 flights per day, of which about 27,000 pass through Europe.

This is of course very positive. It is a service to the people who, more and more, demand to fly, and it contributes about €88 billion to the GDP of the EU. To achieve the expected quality, service aircraft need to be managed efficiently and in good time both on the ground and in the sky, and with the highest environmental and safety standards.

Therein lies the challenge: European skies and airports risk saturation, while air traffic is expected to grow by up to 3% annually for the foreseeable future. With the return of economic growth, and based on existing airport capacity, Eurocontrol forecasts that, without additional initiatives, about 1.9 million flights will not be accommodated by 2035. This is equivalent to 12% of demand – at least 120 million passengers will not be able to make their journeys.

The capacity crunch is real, but it is no isolated issue with a single solution as it is so closely interconnected with many other aspects of aircraft management, such as costs, safety and sustainability. Hence, the European Commission works on initiatives aiming to provide overarching solutions.

Creating a single airspace in Europe through the Single European Sky (SES) initiative is, and will remain, a priority. The overall aim is to improve safety tenfold, triple airspace capacity, reduce air traffic management costs by 50% and reduce the environmental impact by 10%.

A major part of the problem is Europe’s fragmented airspace, which causes delays and extra costs of around €5 billion a year. These costs get passed on to businesses and passengers. Air traffic control currently makes up 6-12% of the cost of a ticket. The USA’s air traffic management (ATM) system is twice as productive as the EU’s. It manages double the number of flights for a similar cost from a third as many control centres. Furthermore, our ATM system is still built on technologies designed in the 1950s.

Our ATM system needs to be both reformed and modernised. A reform that aims at dividing the airspace into nine main blocks built on flight paths rather than national boundaries is ongoing through the SES initiative. This will decrease the average flight length, enabling gains in fuel consumption, costs and efficiency. Regarding modernisation, the technological pillar of the SES initiative is the SESAR Joint Undertaking, which has recently moved from its R&D phase to the concrete realisation of projects. To this purpose, airlines, airport operators and Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSP) will receive up to €3 billion in EU funding through the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF).

So far, so good for the ATM system, but we can’t overlook the airport dimension. In fact, increasing capacity and efficiency in the sky will not be sufficient if this dimension is not set in proportion to the ATM system. On one side, we need to fully exploit existing capacity by revising the rules governing slot allocation at EU airports. Recent studies have confirmed that there is spare capacity across all European airports, just not always where and when there is demand. On the other side, we need to find ways to streamline ground operations. Here again technology is the key word. SESAR projects will greatly contribute to achieving efficient management of aircraft both on the ground and in the sky. Ultimately, we need infrastructure: the key question of additional runways for European major hubs will have to be addressed.

When talking about airports we also talk about accessibility. 50% of airport carbon emissions come from surface access. In order to improve sustainability, the Commission supports research in the field of intermodality, an efficient and user-friendly combination of different means of transport to reach a destination. This includes potential support from the EU’s Connecting Europe Facility for rail links to airports that are part of the Trans-European Transport Network.

Finally, a few words on the international dimension of aviation – a great challenge that needs swift (re)actions. Capacity constraints at larger European airports hamper growth and jobs compared to the 24 hour operations at Turkish or Gulf airports, which are all in the middle of massive expansion plans. Competition from other areas of the world is getting harsh, with the risk that the EU might be left on the edge of the aviation world market. The question of greenhouse gas emissions from aviation needs to be addressed at a global scale. Shortly, the Commission will propose a new strategic vision which puts the EU right in the middle of global traffic flow as a major aviation hub.

The aviation sector is vital for the European economy, but many challenges lie ahead. We need to keep up with the expected growth of demand, to increase capacity and handle it in a more efficient manner, to enable sustainable growth and to get ready to be competitive on a global scale.


João Aguiar Machado is the Director-General at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport. He is in charge of developing an EU transport policy that ensures sustainable mobility of people and goods in a single European transport area. Previous roles have involved working on trade matters, including a role as Deputy Director-General for Trade and for External Relations. Mr Aguiar Machado studied economics in Lisbon and Bruges.

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