After months of disruption caused by air traffic control strikes, airline passengers now face nine days of potential delays due to “the largest air force deployment exercise in NATO’s history”. Air Defender 2023, centered on Germany and managed by the Luftwaffewill involve 10,000 military personnel and 250 combat aircraft from 25 nations.
The exercise runs from Monday 12 to Thursday 22 June inclusive – though with the weekend of Saturday 17 and Sunday 18 June off.
Large blocks of airspace will be closed to civil aircraft during the multi-national exercise.
Civilian pilots will need to navigate around three main “clusters”:
- North, extending into Danish and Dutch airspace
- East, close to the Polish and Czech borders
- South (running from Luxembourg along the French frontier, almost as far as Lake Constance)
Each will be closed or heavily restricted for civilian traffic for several hours each day. The exercise comes while the skies of Europe are busier than at any time since 2019, before the Covid pandemic.
The South cluster will have a significant effect on many holiday flights. Departures from London to Antalya in Turkey normally fly right through this sector, as do aircraft from Manchester to the Greek islands.
It will also impact Lufthansa’s main hub, Frankfurt.
Eurocontrol says: “Approximately 800 flights will be rerouted daily as a result of the exercise and the associated measures.”
Around 300 of those will have their routes extended by an average of 70 miles (110km), corresponding to around seven minutes of flying time at cruising speed. While that may sound a modest impact, the closures will put extra pressure on airspace that remains open.
With schedules finely tuned, delays can quickly build – and hit problems with crew hours and the curfew at some leading European airports, including London Heathrow.
It comes at a time when European air-traffic controllers are struggling to cope with the post-Covid surge in flying, as well as the closure of airspace in Russia and Ukraine.
On top of some planes flying longer routes, Eurocontrol has also warned that the average en-route delay expected for each flight as a result of the exercise is between 150 and 180 seconds. Again, that may seem trivial.
But with budget airlines such as Ryanair timing flights with just 25 minutes between arrival and departure, air-traffic control delays can swiftly build and affect schedules.
Once the flows in and out of key airports – such as London Heathrow and gatwick – are disturbed, further problems begin. These are the busiest two-runway and single-runway airports in the world, respectively. Once a substantial number of aircraft diverge from their schedules, managing take-offs and landings becomes problematic. Furthermore, late-departing planes can block gates to arriving aircraft.
The biggest airline at Gatwick, easyJet, is playing down the prospect of disruption. A spokesperson said: “Currently our schedule is planned to operate as normal. We are in close communication with the German authorities and all of our partners and will continue to monitor the situation closely to ensure the impact on operations is minimal.”
Across at Heathrow, the largest carrier – British Airways – is known to be working with the relevant authorities to model the possible effects.
Why is Nato taking over large swathes of central Europe just when maximum numbers of travelers are trying to fly to the sunshine? The stated aim of the exercise is “on optimizing and expanding cooperation among participating nations”, with maneuvers modeled on a “Nato Article 5 assistance scenario”.
The organization says Article 5 means: ”If a Nato ally is the victim of an armed attack, each and every other member of the alliance will consider this act of violence as an armed attack against all members and will take the actions it deems necessary to assist the ally attacked.”
In other words, the exercise has training value, but also a strongly political aspect: showing the Kremlin what would happen if, for example, Russia were to attack one or more of the Baltic republics.
The Bundeswehr (German defense forces) says: “Procedures are currently being optimized to minimize the impact on civil air traffic as far as possible.”
But travelers this month must build in yet another hurdle on the flight path to their destination.