Did The Boeing 737 MAX Grounding Save A Summer Air Traffic Disaster?

Air traffic control in Europe is a mess. Lengthy delays, ridiculous routing to avoid areas that are oversubscribed and a deep-seated capacity crunch have led to year after year of summer disasters. However, although nothing has structurally changed in 2019, this summer’s air traffic results have been markedly better. Could it have been that the grounding of the 737 MAX took enough aircraft out of action to make the whole situation more manageable?

Did the MAX save Europe from an ATC meltdown this summer? Photo: TUI

Growing flight delays

According to European air traffic coordinator Eurocontrol, Europe is in an air traffic management crisis. The average flight delay is 76% worse this year than in 2017, and 400% greater than five or six years ago.

In 2013, Eurocontrol says en route flight delays were averaging just 0.38 minutes per flight across the network. Last year, the summer broke all records for flight delays, and caused the average en route delay per flight to shoot up to 1.68 minutes. By all accounts, 2019 will show a slight improvement, with the average currently tracking at around 1.6 minutes per flight.

Eamonn Brennan
Eamonn Brennan, DG of Eurocontrol, spoke about the improvement between 2018 and this recent summer. Photo: Eurocontrol

Eamonn Brennan, Director General of Eurocontrol, spoke about the current situation at the recent IATA Wings of Change Europe conference. He told us,

“The situation in 2018 got completely out of control. We had a meltdown of capacity. We lacked significant capacity in key parts of the network. Moving forward, we put measures in key parts of the network for summer 2019 which actually helped. We have reduced delays; we have increased predictability… the point is that we still have a crisis situation, and the reality is, it’s very difficult to deal with it by muddling around, moving traffic, doing small things individually. There needs to be a joined up approach.”

Despite Brennan’s calls for a more coordinated perspective on air traffic management, did the lack of the 737 MAX contribute to the better summer this year?

What affect did the MAX have on European skies?

At the time of the grounding, only a handful of Boeing 737 MAX were in Europe. Norwegian was the largest European operator, with 18 in service. The TUI Group were the second, with 15, Turkish Airlines third with 12, while Icelandair and Air Italy had eight between them. So that’s 41 aircraft off the schedules from the start.

Air Italy 737 MAX
41 aircraft in Europe were grounded directly. Photo: Air Italy

But that’s not the whole story. One of the biggest customers of the 737 MAX, Ryanair, was expecting a significant number to be added to its fleet in time for the summer, with more arriving as the year went on. Norwegian, along with the 18 it already received, were expecting 100 more, many of which should have arrived over the course of this year.

Other operators, TUI, Turkish, LOT Polish, Icelandair and others were likely expecting to be able to add MAXs to their summer schedules until the worldwide grounding was announced. And that’s just within Europe.

Ryanair 737 MAX
Ryanair expected to have MAX aircraft flying in its summer schedule. Photo: Ryanair

Added to the airlines based in Europe that were without the MAX are numerous airlines who might have been flying into European skies using that plane. We know Flydubai had to pull back part of its European expansion as a result of the grounding; there were almost certainly many other routes and flights that were affected by the ban.

It’s almost impossible to estimate the number of aircraft and flights that didn’t take place in Europe this summer as a result of the 737 MAX grounding. The question is, was it a significant enough number to have solved the ATC crisis?

Was the MAX the reason European air traffic control managed better this summer?

Certainly, the Boeing 737 MAX played a small part in the marginally better ATC performance over the summer of 2019. However, as Mr. Brennan pointed out at the IATA conference, there were many other factors at play.

As well as the measures the ANSPs had put into place to get 2019 working better, there were some lucky coincidences that made the summer an easier one to manage. Fewer strikes were held than in 2018, which took the pressure off some of the services. The weather, largely, was much more manageable, and there was a general feeling of a more coordinated approach across European airspace.

However, Mr. Brennan left us with a warning:

“Even though this year has been better than 2018 … it’s still 84% worse than 2017. So the crisis has not disappeared.”

A recent proposal to unblock the Single European Sky regulation could lay a path towards better air traffic management in future. However, it’s clear there is still much to be done.