Eurocontrol says some of the continent’s control centres will struggle to process all flights scheduled for early summer.
Air traffic control delays in Europe over the summer are expected to lead to further chaos at UK airports as rail passengers face the prospect of increasing disruption.
The European Air Traffic Agency has warned that this summer the number of flights will exceed the capacity of control centres to handle them in large parts of the continent and has urged some countries to review their operations to avoid sudden disruption.
The warning came after British holidaymakers faced flight cancellations and delays for more than a week as the airline industry, hit by staff shortages, struggled to cope with a surge in demand.
Rail passengers are also preparing for disruption this summer, with the RMT rail union meeting on Tuesday to discuss announcing a nationwide strike after their members from more than a dozen train operators and infrastructure manager Network Rail backed a strike in a vote last month.
Sunday saw some disruption to railway operations after Eurostar urged passengers not to travel after problems with overhead power lines in France caused disruption. Meanwhile, the London Underground on Monday urged passengers to avoid the capital’s underground due to the RMT strike.
But it was air passengers who faced most of the problems over the weekend, including the cancellation of more than 150 flights at London’s Gatwick Airport.
The airport said 89 flights were cancelled on Saturday and another 82 on Sunday, partly due to air traffic control restrictions following bad weather in parts of Europe, adding to staffing problems in the industry.
EasyJet, Gatwick’s largest operator, cancelled 80 flights on Sunday, blaming “an ongoing difficult operating environment”.
Heathrow Airport, Britain’s busiest airport, has asked airlines to reduce the number of passengers at certain times of the day during the summer to reduce queues in terminal buildings at check-in. The airport said it had contacted airlines “in advance” to allow them to change times or cancel some flights to “smooth out the peaks” at check-in.
Meanwhile, European air traffic control agency Eurocontrol warned in an update covering the six weeks to mid-July that some of the continent’s control centres would struggle to process all flights scheduled for that period.
“Some air navigation service providers need to review their plans as the capacity provided will not be sufficient to meet traffic demand,” the agency said in a statement.
It singled out air traffic control centres, including Reims in eastern France, Munich and Athens, as facing particularly acute problems, but added that much of Europe, including the UK, was operating at capacity and had little room to manoeuvre in case of unforeseen problems.
“The coming six-week period is likely to be extremely challenging for most airports as very high passenger traffic puts a strain on [some of] these airports’ resources,” the paper said.
But the agency said in a statement that air traffic delays averaged just three minutes per flight, less than in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic. It added that it was working with national traffic controllers to minimise delays.
The warning came as UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps again blamed the airline industry for widespread chaos. He said some airlines had cut too many staff during the pandemic.
“Decisions on whether or not to lay off were ultimately made by the airlines. At the end of the day, in hindsight, they clearly cut that,” Shapps told the BBC.
Senior airline executives claim that ministers ignored requests to support jobs in specific sectors to keep skilled workers in the industry after the furlough programme ended last year.
Shapps rejected industry calls to relax Brexit-related immigration rules to allow airlines to transfer staff from their operations to the EU.