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U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jets approaching Jagel Air Base in Schleswig-Holstein: Largest exercise of its kind since NATO was founded

Photo: Georg Wendt / dpa

When the military is practicing, civilian aircraft have to be diverted – in already tightly staffed air sectors: The large-scale exercise of the air forces of the NATO states, "Air Defender", planned for next week, could therefore lead to far-reaching obstructions to civil air traffic.

"According to the plans of the Bundeswehr and German air traffic control, there will be spatially and temporally limited closures within German airspace," said a spokesman for Munich Airport. He spoke of possible "disruptions to civil aviation" such as delays. An exact prediction cannot be made at present.

The Federal Ministers of Defence and Transport have asked the states at short notice to ease the night flight restrictions at the airports in order to be able to accommodate delayed passenger jets late in the evening. For example, Baden-Württemberg has allowed exemptions for Stuttgart until 2 a.m. Longer operating times are also on the horizon for Hamburg and Düsseldorf. At Frankfurt Airport in the black-green government of Hesse, late take-offs are approved until 24 p.m. if the reason for the delay is due to the maneuver.

The ban on night flights in Munich has not been lifted, but airlines can apply for exemptions. However, the military aircraft are not supposed to fly at night and on weekends anyway. Larger airports without a ban on night flights can only be found in Cologne, Leipzig and Nuremberg.

Scenario: Up to 50,000 minutes of delay per day of manoeuvre

The military exercise will "of course have a massive impact on the course of civil aviation," said the head of the pilots' union GdF, Matthias Maas. In view of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, the industry recognizes the necessity of the maneuver, assures a spokesman for the Federal Association of the German Aviation Industry. At the same time, airlines want to know what they and passengers have to prepare for in the travel-intensive early summer weeks. For example, Lufthansa is examining the concrete effects on flight operations, which are to be kept as stable and reliable as possible.

It is controversial whether there will actually only be individual flight delays, as the Bundeswehr has announced – or whether there will be more extensive disruptions or even cancellations. One thing is clear: In areas where military pilots fly on sight, civilian aircraft have no place for safety reasons.

Maas of the pilots' union refers to a scenario calculated by the European air navigation service provider Eurocontrol, which shows up to 50,000 minutes of delay per manoeuvre day. With around 10,000 aircraft movements, this corresponds to a day of severe thunderstorms and would be clearly in the red. Under these conditions, up to 100 aircraft would not be able to reach their orbital destination for the night closure of various airports – with unpleasant consequences for passengers and companies, whose planes would then no longer be able to take off from the right place in the morning. The state-owned air traffic control does not dispute the scenario fed with its data, but refers to other Eurocontrol models with significantly lower impacts.

"Air Defender" is a maneuver of superlatives, which is to take off from June 12 in German airspace under the leadership of the German Air Force. For two weeks, 25 NATO countries are practicing the deployment of large air forces. It is the largest exercise of its kind in the Alliance's history. More than 250 military aircraft, from transporters to fighter jets, are expected to take part.

The training flights are to take place in three narrowly defined airspaces, which will be used alternately on weekdays. A training room east over Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and the Baltic Sea from 10 a.m. to 14 p.m. will be the only one reserved for low-altitude flights. The southern area extends from Lechfeld in Bavaria to Rhineland-Palatinate and is to be used from 13 p.m. to 17 p.m. before being handed over to the northern area above the North Sea from 16 p.m. to 20 p.m. Passengers on civilian flights can therefore hope for punctual take-offs and landings, especially in the early morning hours and on weekends.

The Tübingen-based analysis company A3M expects major problems for the airports in Frankfurt and Berlin in particular, because they are located in or near the training areas. In the course of the day, delays in individual aircraft could add up and thus also cause delays at other locations, cancellations and flight relocations are also considered possible. The dpa news agency also quotes an experienced pilot: "Where there is regulation, delays are unavoidable."

The German air traffic control wants to increase its personnel during the exercise. In addition to the actual training operations, there are also transfer flights to and from outlying bases.