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  • This is Heathrow AirportBritain's Busiest.

  • Each day, about 650 flights take off from one of its two runways.

  • At the busiest times, this represents one aircraft every 45 seconds.

  • Of those 650, about twenty flights daily head to Frankfurt.

  • Between British Airways and Lufthansa, flights on this route depart more than hourly throughout

  • the daytime.

  • This makes Frankfurt one of Heathrow's most frequently served destinations.

  • Despite the unremarkable nature of such a flight, the complexity of even this one hour

  • hop is enormous.

  • It takes dozens of people spread out all across the continent to coordinate and navigate just

  • one of these flights safely to its destination.

  • This is everything that happens within the 90 minutes it takes to for a plane to get

  • from its gate at Heathrow to its gate in Frankfurt.

  • Hours before the flight is scheduled to take off, British Airways will have sent a flight

  • plan to hereEurocontrol's Network Manager Operations Centre in Brussels.

  • Now, Eurocontrol is an intergovernmental air traffic management organization.

  • Prissinotti: [00:01:57] Well, Eurocontrol is an intergovernmental organization of 43

  • states in Europe and beyond and we do air traffic management service transversal.”

  • What that means is that Eurocontrol deals with a variety of different aspects of the

  • job of managing air traffic in Europe.

  • One element of that is what's called network management.

  • This function essentially involves, from this room, making sure that flights make their

  • way through Europe as safely and smoothly as possible.

  • That field is headed up by Lacopo PrissinottiEurocontrol's Director of Network Management.

  • Prissinotti: [00:05:53] So here you see that's our operational room.

  • The scope is to provide services to 43 air navigation service providers, to provide services

  • to more than 500 airports, and to provide services to more than 1000 airlines over the

  • network.”

  • One corner of this room is devoted to checking those flight plans that airlines send in.

  • Now, what they need to check is that these plans are following the rules.

  • You see, to aircraft, the sky does not look like this, but rather this.

  • At least in most of Europe, there are thousands upon thousands of pre-defined airways each

  • with their own rules on directionality and routes and more so aircraft not only need

  • to fly on these roads but they also need to follow the rules of the roads.

  • Looking at this map, you can see why, for example, you won't see many planes flying

  • over this area in the east of Englandthere just aren't many airways there.

  • Eurocontrol sends the fight plans through a program to check that they follows these

  • rules but if the computer rejects it, then it goes to these people in about 2% of cases

  • who coordinate with the airline to fix it manually.

  • From there, they'll distribute the flight plans to all the air traffic control centers

  • that each aircraft is expected to fly over.

  • That process happens before the flight has even taken off.

  • Going back to that British Airways, Heathrow to Frankfurt flight, once their plan is approved,

  • the plane is fueled, loaded, and ready to go, the pilot will get approval from British

  • Airways' flight dispatcher and Heathrow's ground control to push back.

  • Ground control at Heathrow is responsible for navigating all the vehicles and planes

  • safely across the apron up until when they reach the runway.

  • The moment an aircraft gets to the runway, they are then the responsibility of tower

  • control which, assuming all is well, clears them for takeoff.

  • As the plane reaches altitude, it will be passed off to the London Terminal Control

  • Centre located near Southampton which navigates aircraft through the complex London-area airspace

  • until they reach 24,500 feet, or flight level 245, which for this flight should be just

  • about when it reaches the coast.

  • From there, they'll be transferred to the London Area Control Centre, which is physically

  • located in the same building, to navigate them across the channel.

  • Once they reach about halfway across, however, they leave the UK's airspace and enter Belgium's.

  • With that, they are now the responsibility of the Maastricht Upper Area Control Centeralso

  • managed by Eurocontrol.

  • Santurbano: [00:00:20] We are a European nonprofit.

  • A cross-border military civil air navigation service provider.

  • And, uh, yeah, our job is that we handle safely and in an efficient and performed way all

  • traffic above flight level 245—24,500 feet.”

  • To reiterate, they handle traffic across this whole area, above 24,500 feet or 7,500 meters.

  • Santurbano: [00:01:45] So we manage, what, more or less 1.9 Million of movements per

  • year, so between 5,000 and 5,700 movements depending on the on the season and the day,

  • per day.”

  • It's one of the busiest and most complex airspaces in Europe especially as it receives

  • a significant amount of traffic climbing from or descending into four of of Europe's five

  • busiest airportsHeathrow, Schiphol, Frankfurt, and Paris Charles de Gaulle.

  • Every single one of those flights, as long as it's between flight level 245 and 660,

  • is in contact with the people in this room.

  • Now, the Maastricht control centre's airspace is divided into three sector groupsthe

  • Brussels, Hannover, and DECO sector groups.

  • Each sector group is staffed by their own set of controllers who only work on their

  • group—a Brussels sector group controller would very rarely switch over to the Hannover

  • group, for example.

  • Many controllers spend their entire careers working at one control center within one sector

  • group.

  • This allows them to really learn the design of their airspace in depth.

  • Each of the sector groups is then divided into sectors themselves.

  • Now, sectors can be divided both horizontally and vertically.

  • For example, there's the Luxembourg sector, between flight level 245 and 355, and also

  • the Luxembourg High sector, above flight level 335.

  • At the very busiest times, each sector will have its own dedicated set of controllers.

  • At less busy times, though, they can and do combine the upper and lower sector together

  • so they're staffed by one set of controllers.

  • At the least busy times, such as in the middle of the night, they'll often combine a number

  • of sectors.

  • For example, the entirety of Belgian airspace is typically controlled by one set of controllers

  • in the dead of night.

  • In charge of each sector are two controllers working as a team.

  • One is in charge of talking to pilots, the other is in charge of talking to their counterparts

  • at other sectors to coordinate handovers.

  • Now, in practice, for that London to Frankfurt flight, before it enters Maastricht's airspace

  • in the Koksy sector, they'll receive info on where and at which flight level it will

  • arrive.

  • They'll also get info from the flight plan on where it's supposed to exit their sector.

  • An aircraft also might enter at one altitude and be planned to exit at another.

  • The task is then to safely navigate the aircraft from the entry point to exit point and deliver

  • it to the next sector at the desired altitude.

  • Now, assuming no added obstructions such as weather or airspace closures, the main obstacles

  • planes need to avoid at this altitude are other planes.

  • There are rules about how close a plane can be to another in order to avoid any chance

  • of midair collision and the controller's job is to make sure that these rules are not

  • broken or, if they are, to get to the correct level of separation as soon as possible.

  • An aircraft must be either vertically or horizontally separated from all others at any given time.

  • What this means is that typically, a commercial aircraft cruising at this altitude can be

  • as little as 1000 vertical feet or 300 vertical meters away from another.

  • That's vertical separation.

  • Alternatively, an aircraft can be horizontally separated.

  • They have to be at least 5 nautical miles, 6 miles, or 9 kilometers apart if they're

  • within 1000 feet vertically.

  • Now, in order to achieve the goals of getting the aircraft to its exit point without breaking

  • minimum separation, there are three factors the controller can instruct the pilot to changespeed,

  • altitude, and direction.

  • That is essentially what a controller spends most of their time doingdetermining where

  • the aircraft needs to go, how to get it there, and communicating that to the pilot.

  • Soon enough, after just a few minutes, as the aircraft reaches its exit point from the

  • sector, it will be passed onto the controller of the next sector.

  • In this case, it'll go into Nicky Sector, then Olno sector, then it will move onto airspace

  • beyond what the Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre manages.

  • As the plane starts to descends it will be passed onto the controllers dealing with lower

  • airspace, then approach and tower control to guide it into landing.

  • All told, on just this hour long flight, more than a dozen air traffic controllers will

  • have dealt with this aircraft.

  • But that's what happens when absolutely everything is going right, which is rarely

  • the case.

  • You see, back at Eurocontrol's network manager room, the second thing they do with the flight

  • plans they receive is make sure that once an aircraft gets flying, there are actually

  • enough air traffic controllers to manage it.“Thomas: [00:01:50] So, air traffic control, they decide

  • on their capacity i.e. how many flights can safely be handled in one piece of airspace

  • by one air traffic controller.

  • That's their decision based on their staffing, based on their infrastructure, their tools,

  • and that is communicated to us.”

  • So, there's a limited number of flights a single air traffic controller can handle,

  • but there's also a limited number of air traffic controllers.

  • It's no secret that Europe, along with much of the world, is suffering through an air

  • traffic controller shortage right now.

  • Simultaneously, also along with much of the world, Europe has been experiencing a tremendous

  • increase in its number of flights.

  • This supply and demand mismatch has consequences.

  • In 2018, 60% of all en-route delaysas in, while the aircraft is actually flyingwere

  • because of not having enough air traffic control capacity.

  • Part of Eurocontrol's job, therefore, is to utilize the limited resource in the most

  • effective way possible.

  • Often, they reduce overall delays by delaying flights.

  • Sometimes its just for a few minutes, sometimes it's for longer, but if you're flying

  • in Europe and you hear that your flight is delayed for air traffic control reasons, that

  • decision was probably made in this room.

  • It's just like a ramp meter on a highwaythey let a manageable number of flights fly at

  • any given time when there are capacity constraints.

  • Now, when a flight receives a delay by Eurocontrol, the airline essentially has two choicesaccept

  • the delay and wait it out or fly a different route.

  • Airlines have access to Eurocontrol's system to help them make this decision.“Thomas:

  • [00:09:26] For instance here is a flight, it's a Thomas Cook flight from Manchester

  • going to Antalya in Turkey and they have planned this blue route here.”

  • This is the route that Thomas Cook has decided is best for themit's the least expensive

  • considering fuel costs, overflight costs, and everything.

  • Given that it flies through capacity constrained areas, though, to fly this route, they would

  • have to sit through a delay.

  • Thomas: [00:10:05] Through our system now they can look at to see OK where our routes

  • that do not give them delay.

  • Those are all the blue routes you can see here and actually then there is a gray route

  • here which is the shortest of the blue.

  • A system says if you want to avoid your route which is delay you can take Blue routes or

  • the shortest blue which is the grey and it's up to you.”

  • The airline can then go and decide whether it's worth it to them to fly the alternate

  • route or wait out the delay.

  • Eurocontrol's network management role really is most applicable on the worst days for flying

  • in Europe.

  • Their job is to make the bad days as ok as possible.

  • An example of a really bad day for flying was Thursday, May 9, 2019.

  • The main issue was a large-scale French air traffic controller strike meaning there was

  • very little air traffic control capacity in French airspaceone of the busiest areas.

  • Celik: [00:03:56] If you look at this map, that shows the magnitude of the impact on

  • the sectors.

  • The color red means that there were delays in the order of 45 minutes or above per flight.”

  • On days such as this, many airlines will choose to fly around France as to be less delayed

  • but, of course, the ATC centers in the surrounding countries need to be able to cope with demand.

  • Celik: [00:04:30] Starting from three to four days before this event is confirmed we

  • would coordinate with Spain, North African countries, Algeria, Tunisia, we would coordinate

  • with Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Karlsruhe, we would coordinate with Maastricht and UK

  • to be able to get extra capacity for all those who has to go out.

  • So one alternative route from UK to go down to south of Spain and continuation on that

  • what we called Tango route.”

  • Tango route takes planes way out west into oceanic airspace to take a wide curve around

  • French airspace and is commonly flown when French airspace is restricted.

  • It is, of course, not efficient.

  • A flight from Alicante to London, for example, which normally takes just two hours, would

  • take over three by using Tango route but overall, it would typically arrive earlier than if

  • they waited for approval to fly through French airspace.

  • What made the 9th of May even worse is that drones were spotted at Frankfurt airport meaning

  • all arrivals and departures were stopped.

  • Celik: [00:14:02] What we do we immediately get in contact with all the airports around

  • if you like.

  • You know this was the case in Frankfurt.

  • We contacted Amsterdam, Munich, Paris, Brussels immediately to try to understand incoming

  • flights, so live traffic, where they could land.”

  • Eurocontrol will get information from the surrounding airports on how many diverted

  • aircraft they can handle and passes this information onto airlines so they can quickly book a diversion

  • slot for their aircraft.

  • All told, there were over 300,000 minutes of delays on May 9th, but initial calculations

  • determined that there was the potential for over 1 million minutes of delays which means

  • that Eurocontrol likely succeeded in their task of improving the day.

  • Eurocontrol's network manager room is expected to be quite busy in the coming months.

  • Right now, in early June, they already know summer 2019 is going to be messy.

  • It's the busiest period of the year for flights and there's actually less air traffic

  • control capacity than there was in summer 2018 when they had 26 million minutes of delays.

  • They fear this summer could be worse but, they made their action plan months ago, and

  • will be here nonstop through the coming months to make the summer travel season as smooth

  • as it can be.

  • Overall, this room, air traffic control centers, and the rest of the world's air traffic

  • management infrastructure are crucial tools to make sure that routine, uneventful flights

  • like London to Frankfurt stay uneventful.

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