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"This will not be favorable for German air traffic control": Air traffic controllers in the tower of Rhein-Main-Airport (Image archive)

Photo: Boris Roessler/ picture-alliance/ dpa

There are different assessments on the question of what impairments the NATO large-scale exercise "Air Defender 23" will have for civil aviation from next Monday. While the Bundeswehr is playing down and expecting hardly any effects – according to Ingo Gerhartz, inspector of the German Air Force, the delays will be "in the range of minutes at most" – other aviation players are expecting massive consequences. In the days from 12 to 23 June, they expect cancellations, postponements and delays of hundreds of civilian flights. In addition, night flight bans have been relaxed in many places.

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Military exercise with 25 countries: Ingo Gerhartz, Inspector of the German Air Force, and his US counterpart Michael A. Loh


One thing is certain: "Air Defender" is NATO's largest flight exercise since its inception, involving a total of 25 countries. 250 military aircraft, from transporters to fighter jets, and almost 10,000 soldiers are taking part in the exercise, with a total of about 2000,<> flights planned. In the period of eleven days, large airspace blocks are therefore repeatedly reserved for the military for several hours. As a spokesman for the Air Force announced on Thursday, all scenarios, such as air combat, would be flown in real life. However, the systems of the air force would also have the possibility to digitally simulate an air combat.

Up to 50,000 minutes of delay per day of manoeuvres?

The European air navigation service provider Eurocontrol has calculated a scenario for the next two weeks that shows up to 50,000 minutes of delay per manoeuvre day. Almost 100 aircraft could not reach their destination for the usual night closure of various airports. "In order to relieve the burden on German airspace, Eurocontrol will divert numerous overflights that would fly over Germany as planned to other airspaces," says Alexander Klay, press spokesman for the Federal Association of the German Aviation Industry, "which may increase flight times." The current planning is available to air traffic control, airports and airlines. "On this basis, the system partners of the aviation industry are coordinating," reports Klay.

In this way, precautions are being taken to ensure that civilian aircraft can continue to fly. "What is clear, however, is that there will be temporary effects on air traffic," says Klay. Contrary to what the Federal Ministry of Defense has stated, the military exercise could well lead to "significant impairments of civil air traffic". However, no one has to worry that the civilian flights will not take place during the military exercise. However, if there are isolated flight cancellations in connection with 'Air Defender', the airline will provide alternative transportation, pay for any accommodation and catering costs that may be incurred, or refund the airfare. However, there is no provision for a further compensation payment.

"Military traffic has priority. What is left over in terms of capacity will be distributed among civil aviation."

For Matthias Maas, head of the air traffic control union (GdF), it is clear that the maneuvers in the air must lead to delays because the airspace is simply narrowing and there is less space for civilian aircraft. If, therefore, these are no longer available in time at the planned location, this would be to the detriment of the passengers, Maas emphasizes in an interview with manager magazin. The experienced air traffic controller does not see an increased danger for civil aviation: "Military traffic has priority in such times. The remaining capacity in the airspace will be distributed among civil aviation," says Maas. However, since this already basically needs the entire airspace and the complete pilotage for itself, there will inevitably be delays and possibly also failures in civil air traffic, the union boss is convinced.

According to Maas, the air traffic controllers of the German air traffic control are responsible for the military aircraft used when they are outside the three defined training areas east, south and north. Within these training rooms, the aircraft are under military control and military air traffic controllers at the set times. "It is in these airspaces that they also carry out their interception exercises, if necessary. This is their playroom where the pilots can let off steam." Maas expects two very challenging weeks, at least on weekdays. "We don't fly on weekends," says Maas. However, air traffic controllers are used to high loads. "That's what we're trained for – and that's what we're well paid for."

There is no holiday ban for the duration of the NATO exercise. "Air traffic control should have made this part of the annual plan in the fall," says Maas, "but they missed it. So everyone who can and is allowed to work will be activated – we air traffic controllers will have to work a lot of extra shifts and overtime." "I'm curious to see who will cover the costs," says Maas, who estimates that this will result in "additional costs in the high six-figure range".

Relaxed night flight bans for certain airports

The Federal Association of the German Aviation Industry is in talks with the state aviation authorities about the possibility of flights taking off and landing beyond the usual operating hours of the airports in order to keep air traffic stable. "Appropriate permits have now been issued at most locations," reports Klay.

Baden-Württemberg, for example, allows exceptions for Stuttgart Airport until 2 a.m. Hamburg and Düsseldorf also want to create this possibility. At the Frankfurt am Main hub, take-offs should still be possible until 24 p.m. – provided that the reason for the delay is due to the maneuver. Larger airports without a ban on night flights can only be found in Cologne, Leipzig and Nuremberg.

"The relaxed ban on night flights certainly relieves the burden on civil aviation," says union boss Maas, "but it is a further burden for air traffic controllers." This is because many sectors in the airspace are kept open longer, which automatically means longer shifts. "We need more staff," Maas says.