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Saturday, May 28, 2022

Air traffic control: “The sky must be safe and free”

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Arndt Schoenemann was fully aware of the good times in the aviation industry. For twelve years he was General Manager of Liebherr Aerospace Lindenberg, which manufactures landing gear for Airbus and Boeing aircraft, among other things. Suppliers also benefited greatly from the boom in air traffic until the beginning of 2020. And because of the landing gear, for example, there were close ties with Russia, which, among other things, supplied titanium, a particularly strong metal that is meant to absorb extreme loads on the complex component, especially during landing.

The 57-year-old has been head of German air traffic control (DFS) for almost exactly a year and now has to moderate a particularly hard landing there, in a figurative sense. The state-owned company had lost revenue since 2020 due to the corona pandemic, and the gap had to be closed with a capital increase. Then, at a time when airlines could barely survive financially, Schoenemann had to raise fares, because air traffic control costs are divided by regulation by the (now much smaller) number of flights, which is always a nuisance even under reasonably normal conditions. industry of the times. In 2021, DFS counted only half as many flights as in 2019. And now the war in Ukraine: the airspace is closed, long-haul planes have to fly around Russia and Ukraine, the economic situation has been difficult for a longer time of the expected.

Air Traffic Control: DFS chief Arndt Schoenemann has been well connected in the aviation industry for decades.

DFS boss Arndt Schoenemann has been well connected in the aviation industry for decades.

(Photo: Melanie Bauer/German Air Traffic Control/dpa)

The many diversions are currently generating more flights for DFS: 20 percent more flights had to be flown at the end of February. A small problem, of course, given the war and its consequences. “Aviation was invented to cross borders and allow the exchange of goods and people. The fact that overflight rights are now restricted and countries block each other’s airspace is the exact opposite of this idea,” says Schoenemann. . “Heaven must be safe and free, for all people, regardless of whether they are Ukrainian, Russian, American, Japanese, French or German.”

Unlike his predecessor Klaus-Dieter Scheurle, who, as a former Secretary of State, moved from politics to industry, Schoenemann has been an extremely well-connected aviation manager for decades. He has been a member of the board of directors of the German Association of Aerospace Industries (BDLI) since 2005 and has even been vice president since 2011. He was also active in the Association of European Aerospace and Defense Industries (ASD) for a long time. Despite all the potential sticking points with airlines or airports, things have remained surprisingly quiet around Schoenemann, in this case, a good sign. An informant from Brussels says that he is impressed that the head of DFS is really serious about cutting costs and increasing efficiency in his company. In Lufthansa circles, it is appreciated that Schoenemann approaches his work primarily as an entrepreneur and not politically.

DFS is on duty 24 hours a day, even when you’re not flying

“We have significantly reduced costs, we agreed to a Corona collective agreement. But the basic service means that we cannot save as much as others,” says Schoenemann. “We have a basic sovereign duty to fulfill 24 hours a day. We always have to keep the airspace open. Even if not a single plane flies, we have to maintain a minimum service.” So there are always basic costs. And if they fly more, “we need more staff and technology. Everything costs money.”

And with their rates: “In 2019 we had a lot of traffic, in 2020 and 2021 little, now the system comes into effect and rates go up. It’s pretty clear that airspace users don’t like that,” says Schoenemann. .

According to Schoenemann, the Federal Supervisory Office for Air Traffic Control has now determined “an appropriate increase in fees, which can be derived from traffic” after a complicated procedure. In numbers: takeoffs and landings will cost 68 percent more in the future, overflights will be 13 percent cheaper. On a flight from Hamburg to Munich with a fully occupied Airbus A320 air traffic control now costs around four euros per passenger. DFS also received a €300 million capital increase from the federal government and took €500 million in loans from the banks. DFS benefits from the fact that it is owned by the federal government and has a high AAA credit rating. “In the coming years, sections that we have to pay will expire,” said the head of the DFS.

Additional funding and thus fees will continue to be an issue. Because Schoenemann argues that “from our point of view, Eurocontrol’s performance planning is too optimistic. If you plan too optimistically, the (flight) fares will go down.” The assessment does not even take into account the consequences of the Ukraine war, which are likely to be reflected in significantly slower growth in air traffic. “The Eurocontrol forecast assumes 88 percent of the 2019 level, we assume 75 to 80 percent by 2022,” says Schoenemann. “This gap has to be made up for somehow if the traffic doesn’t come through. If the forecast is correct, we’ll be out in no time.” In the course of the year, however, DFS will have to obtain another loan, which Schoenemann says will likely be a shareholder loan from the federal government.

However, it’s not just the still low number of flight moves that DFS is struggling with. The way airlines fly has also changed dramatically. “We have massive spikes on weekends and in the morning and in the evening. Saturday and Sunday were the busiest days, that was not the case before Corona,” says Schoenemann. “You realize the huge demand for holiday travel delays.” And the schedule can no longer be planned correctly: “Airlines are sometimes updated weekly. Nowadays, a complete summer or winter flight plan is simply flown like this, that doesn’t exist anymore.”

2025 is the year Schoenemann hopes to return to pre-crisis levels, and he is more cautious than most. For DFS, however, this still means he has to start training new air traffic controllers all over again, because training takes three to four years. The crisis is also creating new problems here: “Because of the low traffic, we have not been able to train enough people because there is a lot of training at work. But that is not possible if there is no air traffic.”

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