The business continuity measures taken by ANSPs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic led to a significant reduction in the scope of current and planned activities related to the provision of ATM/ANS. Most, if not all ATS units in Europe and elsewhere are operating in a very limited configuration (a few ATC sectors only) due to the significant decrease in traffic demand. The duty hours of the operational and engineering staff have been reduced respectively. Staff training and equipment maintenance plans might not have been followed due to the introduced physical distancing rules. Some facilities could have been put in ‘sleep’ mode due to absence of operational need and/or of staff to use them.
Since mid-April 2020 the European Network Manager (NM) and all operational stakeholders have been working together to ensure a safe, smooth and coordinated recovery of the European ATM network operations from the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 restrictions to flying. The vehicle of this collaborative effort is provided by the European NOP 2020 Recovery plan. Within the scope of this work, the NM has developed in cooperation with the members of the EUROCONTROL Safety Team and SAFOPS group a safety argument and a list of potential safety hazards to assist ANSPs in the planning and execution of a safe return to normal operations.
The safety argument and the associated hazard list will be maintained and updated based on the feedback from the operational stakeholders (ANSPs, aerodrome operators, aircraft operators) on a weekly basis.
Transition Safety Argument
The purpose of the Safety Argument is to serve as a checklist and assist ANSPs in the safe return to normal operations. It provides a comprehensive reference to the elements of the ANSP’s functional system that might have been affected during the COVID-19 lockdown period and need to be properly accounted of and managed when planning and executing the transition to normal operations.
The scope of the argument covers the three main elements of the functional system – operational and engineering staff, procedures and equipment, and identifies the elements’ properties that have been or could have been affected by the reduced scope of operations. Such properties include - inter alia - operational and engineering staff competence, training and medical fitness; equipment configuration and certificates for use; changes to procedures introduced during the crisis period, etc.
The safety argument puts an emphasis on the need to set up a robust transition planning, monitoring and management process. Key elements of this process are: collaborative prediction of traffic demand, monitoring and planning of ATC sector configurations and pre-tactical ATFCM measure scenarios; flexible ATCO rostering in accordance with traffic outlook and actual demand; coordination and collaboration with all transition stakeholders (NM, ANSPs, AOs, airport operators, CAs); targeted safety monitoring and timely identification and resolution of transition issues.
To support the risk assessment part of the Safety Argument a generic hazard identification of the ATM/ANS provision during the recovery period has been carried out. The output has been captured in a list of generic hazards that may occur during the extended period of transition to normal operations due to various factors related to the COVID-19 aviation lockdown.
The potential hazards are not defined at one particular level or boundary of the ATM system. The hazards are rather potential safety issues that are not necessarily independent of each other. Some of the items in the list can also be considered as disruptors that could affect higher level operational hazards.
The hazard list contains the hazard description, the list of COVID-19 lockdown related causal and contributory factors and disruptors, and possible measures to mitigate the probability of hazard occurrence or their safety effects. It is not an exhaustive list, but reflects what is known or anticipated at the time of publication.
When used at local level, the list of hazards and potential mitigation measures should be reviewed and updated according to the local operational environment and the specific impact of the lockdown on the ANSP’s functional system.
The hazards can be assigned to the following domains:
- Demand-capacity balancing;
- Staff skills, training and human factors;
- Equipment and infrastructure;
- Aeronautical information management;
- Runway operations;
- Aircraft navigation/flight operation;
- Air ground-communication.
The importance of identification, monitoring and mitigation of risk factors associated with the rapid increase of travel demand was reinforced by the EASA SIB 2023-05 (see Furhter Reading below).
Vaccination of ATCOs and operational staff
In May 2021 EASA and EUROCONTROL published jointly Guidlines related to the COVID-19 vaccination of air traffic controllers (ATCOs) and operational staff.
The documentation provided by the European Medicines Agency as part of the assessment process of the vaccines, as well as other published studies regarding the vaccines approved for use in Europe, note that some side-effects and adverse reactions could result from the vaccination, although this does not in any way call into question the overall safety of the vaccines. Although the vast majority of side effects reported so far are mild, they could be relevant in the safety context of ATCO tasks, and the Guidelines recommend that Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) should perform a risk assessment in accordance with their safety management system to identify whether the recommendations made in the EASA-EUROCONTROL guidelines should also be extended to their operational personnel on shift undertaking safety-related tasks.
As these vaccines are new pharmacological products, EASA and EUROCONTROL provided recommendations for the National Competent Authorities (NCAs), ANSPs and ATCOs to ensure that any side-effects do not interfere with the execution of safety-related tasks.