ANSPs in Turbulent Times - Uncovering the Impact of Demand Shocks on Efficiency Using the Malmquist Index

Thomas Standfuss[1], Frank Fichert[2], Georg Hirte[3] and Hartmut Fricke[1]
[1]TU Dresden, Chair of Aviation Technology and Logistics
[2]Worms University of Applied Sciences
[3]TU Dresden, Chair of Economics, esp. Transport Policy and Spatial Economics

Abstract: Global and local shocks such as COVID-19 or the Russian attack on Ukraine have influenced European air transport, and other shocks will appear in the future. The subsequent traffic shifts affect one bottleneck candidate of the system: the Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSP). In this paper, we apply productivity metrics and Malmquist Data Envelopment Analysis to examine how the ANSP related performance of the air transport system has changed between 2008 and 2020. By considering different levels of granularity we demonstrate the tremendous influence that shocks may have on demand figures and, subsequently, on performance metrics. As an example we show that the Corona pandemic had disparate impacts on various units, resulting in notable efficiency losses in 2020, however, with a strong variation between ANSPs. The findings of our study can be utilized in a subsequent root-cause analysis to quantify the impacts of both endogenous and exogenous factors on performance. This in turn will provide valuable insights for policymakers and industry stakeholders in managing air transport during and after such shocks, and to create a more resilient air traffic management system.

Keywords: Efficiency;ATM;Panel Analysis;Malmquist;Data Envelopment Analysis;External Shocks
Citation: Standfuss, T., Fichert, F., Hirte, G., and Fricke, H. (2023). ANSPs in Turbulent Times - Uncovering the Impact of Demand Shocks on Efficiency Using the Malmquist Index. Journal of the Air Transport Research Society 1(1): 101-116
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1 Introduction

In the 1990s, the liberalization of European air transport markets led to a significant increase in demand for air travel. However, this has resulted in capacity constraints in the busiest airspaces. Furthermore, the increasing market share of Low Cost Carriers contributed to an increasing cost pressure. As a result, more attention is being paid to the performance evaluation of the European Air Traffic Management (ATM), which is often regarded as being both costly and inefficient. Despite numerous institutional, academic, and operational studies, a complete picture of efficiency drivers has yet to be established. The majority of analyses primarily address air navigation service provider (ANSP) related activities, comprising i.a. air traffic control service provision, which is often considered as a bottleneck of the ATM system. The ANSPs, which are financed via charges paid by airspace users, are responsible for managing the scarce resource of airspace capacity. EUROCONTROL publishes annual reports on operational and financial performance. Academic studies have focused on improving the related benchmarking methodology and identifying potential causes of inefficiencies as well as savings that might result from efficiency improvements. Therefore, the publications have focused on specific aspects, such as the structuring of airspace. Since in general each country has designated one ANSP for its airspace, the European system is highly heterogeneous in terms of the systems used, training content, procedures, culture and working methods. This has resulted in significant spatial, technical and administrative fragmentation of the European air traffic management (ATM) (EUROCONTROL and FAA 2016; Standfuss et al. 2019; Rezo, Steiner, and Piccioni 2020). Studies applying a more holistic approach indicate that numerous other factors contribute to inefficiency. This is hardly surprising, since European ATM involves - as stated - many stakeholders, each with their own (partially conflicting) particular objectives beyond the fundamental performance criteria set out by the SES Performance Scheme (European Commission 2013; EUROCONTROL 2021c). Additionally, events such as wars (Prakasa et al. 2022), economic crises (Pearce 2012), or natural disasters (Lechner et al. 2017) can trigger shocks that vary in their spatial and temporal spread. These shocks can also influence the performance of the ATM system.

Shocks are typically characterized by sudden and significant changes in demand or its distribution, often limited to a particular area or country and its neighboring regions. However, the COVID-19 pandemic was an extraordinary global crisis that impacted the entire world. One of the notable impacts was the substantial decline in European air traffic figures, ranging from -37% (Norway) to -70% (Armenia) (EUROCONTROL 2022). Such fluctuations can have a detrimental effect on efficiency, particularly since demand tends to fluctuate more rapidly than resources can be adjusted. To enhance the system’s resilience, it is essential to quantify the resulting change in efficiency and to examine potential influencing factors. In this paper, we focus on the former and employ the Malmquist index to demonstrate that efficiency losses of ANSPs varied with respect to their magnitude. These findings will be utilized in a subsequent step, which involves an extensive root cause analysis, to be detailed in a separate paper due to its extensive scope.

This paper builds upon a preliminary study that focuses on ANSP benchmarking  (Standfuss, Hirte, and Schultz 2022). The authors have recommended that performance benchmarking of air traffic control services should be conducted using a data envelopment analysis (DEA). For this analysis only operational variables should be used, and removing outlier units from the dataset is crucial for achieving meaningful results. Building on these findings, the present study applies the suggested methods and economic models while monitoring the results over time and analyzing the effects of scaling and technical progress. Thus, this study provides an important link to the root cause analysis, in which the performance values calculated serve as input variables for a regression. The overall approach offers three major benefits: Firstly, it enables us to examine changes in performance over time. Secondly, it has methodological benefits, such as accounting for unobserved heterogeneity. Lastly, panel datasets enhance the number of observations, which is expected to increase the statistical significance of the results. The last two arguments primarily pertain to the root cause analysis. Nevertheless, certain fluctuations in performance can probably be attributed to events. For instance, a decline in productivity and efficiency could be expected during the 2008 financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Our study seeks to address two primary research questions. First, how has the performance of European air navigation service providers developed over recent years? Second, can significantly varying performance values be attributed to local or global geopolitical, natural, or economic events (qualitative analysis)? To provide context for the study, the next section provides a literature review. Section 3 offers a brief overview of air navigation service operations. Section 4 discusses the data and benchmarking method used in this study, while Section 5 presents the results. In Section 6, we summarize our findings and provide an outlook for future research.

2 Literature Review

Evaluating and comparing the performance of companies is a key task in economics. In most cases, performance is expressed either by productivity or efficiency. Productivity is measured as the ratio of goods produced or services provided (outputs) to the resources used to produce them (inputs). Higher values indicate a higher productivity. Although the use of absolute values makes them easily comparable, the explanatory power of benchmarking results might be limited if the units differ significantly e.g., in size or with respect to the economic environment1. Efficiency analysis aims to identify potential room for improvement by comparing the performance of a unit with that of the best in class. The subsequent metric is a relative performance, limited between 0 and 1, respectively 0% and 100%2. If the unit’s performance represents best in class, it is considered efficient (100). Otherwise, the unit can strive to either reduce input or increase output in order to become efficient. Further details regarding the methodology employed in this study will be presented in Section 4.

The academic literature provides various approaches for assessing the performance of decision-making units (DMU). In economics, a common practice is the so-called "two-stage analysis" (Zhu 2014). In the first stage, the performance of the unit is determined by means of a previously defined metric. The second stage then examines which influencing factors exist and how they affect the performance score in terms of sign (does the factor have a positive or negative effect on the performance), strength (how high is the influence), and statistical significance (is this relationship statistically verifiable or rather random). The present study primarily focuses on the first stage, with a qualitative analysis of the results. The analysis of ANSP performance (first stage) was introduced some 20 years ago by the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation EUROCONTROL, and disseminated in annual reports, e.g., (EUROCONTROL 2019a, 2020c). However, these reports use a simple index method that only provides limited and incomplete insights (Standfuss, Hirte, and Schultz 2022). Furthermore, the reports compare units (ANSPs) that exhibit a high degree of heterogeneity in terms of the services offered, operational size, and environmental influences such as role of unions or wage effects (see also Table 1). Metrics used in the comparison must also be critically scrutinized. As one example, the ATCO productivity measure uses a composite measure to aggregate flight hours and airport movements. Despite the fact that the share of both services may vary significantly among the units, a pan-European weighting factor is used.

Collaborative studies with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have compared the operational (EUROCONTROL and FAA 2019a) and financial (EUROCONTROL and FAA 2019b) performance of ANSPs in European and US American airspaces. Additionally, (EUROCONTROL and FAA 2021) conducted an analysis of the impact of COVID-19 in both airspaces. The findings suggest that efficiency in the US airspace is generally perceived as being higher, highlighting the need for a more harmonized air traffic management system and reduced fragmentation in Europe. Furthermore, it has been observed that the US system appears to be more resilient, as it experienced a lower impact from the COVID-19 pandemic compared to the European service providers. However, there a significant differences between Europe and the US in terms of operations and funding. Without appropriate adjustment of the data, an accurate efficiency assessment is unachievable. This point has been emphasized by (Standfuss and Whittome 2019). The authors were able to demonstrate that the proclaimed difference in performance between the two airspaces is much smaller, and in some cases even reversed, when operational and financial characteristics are adjusted. Moreover, (Whittome and Standfuss 2018) showed that European ANSPs would have a 70% higher funding at their disposal in case the American financing concept were applied in Europe3. Significant weaknesses were identified regarding the COVID-19 study as well. (FABEC 2021a) pointed out that the decline in the number of flights during the pandemic can be attributed to the drop in demand. This in turn was influenced by country-specific regulations such as contact restrictions, travel bans, and other measures related to COVID-19. These restrictions were particularly stringent in Europe, with varying degrees of strictness implemented in almost all European countries. In contrast, the United States government opted for less far-reaching measures, which had positive effects on domestic air traffic. In consequence, the observed differences in resilience may be largely attributed to policy implications and thus exogenous effects related to COVID-19 measures, rather than to a (proclaimed) higher efficiency.

Academic studies particularly improved the assessment methodology, applying e.g., Data Envelopment Analysis (DEA) (Arnaldo et al. 2014; Standfuss, Hirte, and Schultz 2022), or Stochastic Frontier Analysis (SFA) (Blondiau et al. 2016; NERA 2006). However, the latter requires ex-ante assumptions with regard to the production or cost function. Since ex-ante assumptions are challenging, there is the risk of model misspecification. Thus, (Standfuss, Hirte, and Schultz 2022) argue that the application of the deterministic, non-parametric Data Envelopment Analysis represents the most appropriate approach4. Over the past decades, researchers have developed various DEA approaches. As one example, the super-efficiency DEA enables efficiency values of over 100%. This approach has two main advantages: First, efficient units can also be ranked; second, this analysis helps to find outliers and oddities. Additive or multiplicative models, e.g., the slack-based DEA (Tone 2001), combine input and output orientation (Zhu 2014). As a non-parametric approach, DEA provides no measures of model quality. Therefore, (Bogetoft and Otto 2011) developed the bootstrap DEA, a stochastically ‘corrected’ or ‘adjusted’ production function is generated. However, according to Coelli et al. (2005), the bootstrap algorithm should not be applied in the case of empirically gathered data.

Since DEA is frequently used to determine efficiency (first stage), various publications deal with the appropriate second-stage method. (Simar and Wilson 2007) analyzed and compared different regression techniques, including Ordinary-Least-Squares (OLS), Truncated and Tobit models. They also tested different data transformations, particularly the log-transformation of DEA values. The authors recommend a truncated model for regression based on a DEA. Further, (Banker and Natarajan 2008) compared different second stage approaches. The authors showed that deterministic methods are superior to parametric approaches. The most common approach is applying DEA in combination with a Tobit regression, e.g., (Spaho 2015), although (Hoff 2007) demonstrated that these models perform similarly to OLS models. Further academic studies primarily dealt with specific aspects of efficiency influencing factors (second stage) and how to improve efficiency. As an example, (Starita et al. 2021; Button and Neiva 2013; Standfuss et al. 2019) analyze potential improvements by achieving economies of scale through airspace mergers and an improved cooperation. Other studies examined the efficiency gains through the privatization of ANSPs (Buyle 2022), alternative financing concepts (Verbeek 2017), dynamic sectorization, (Gerdes, Temme, and Schultz 2018), flight-centric ATC (Birkmeier and Korn 2014; Névir 2022), or alternative market designs (Adler, Hanany, and Proost 2022). Furthermore, (Rezo et al. 2023) identified and discussed shortcomings in one of EUROCONTROL’s key performance areas, specifically capacity. The authors proposed the use of spatially-oriented performance indicators, as their findings revealed that the attainment of performance targets is influenced by neighboring air navigation service providers.

Several publications have examined the impacts of global and local shocks on the aviation industry, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian attack on Ukraine. For instance, (Bugayko et al. 2023) examine three proactive risk management scenarios for ensuring sustainability after the end of the war. Similarly, (Sun, Wandelt, and Zhang 2021; Ölçen and Alnipak 2023; Linden 2021; Andribet, Baumgartner, and Garot 2022) discuss various strategies for managing pandemic-induced shocks, with a focus on the COVID-19 outbreak, e.g., to create a more resilient ATM system. The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland in 2010, and the resulting ash cloud, had a profound impact on air traffic, disrupting operations for three months. Despite being a rather local event, it caused significant global economic consequences. (Reichardt, Ulfarsson, and Pétursdóttir 2021) utilized this case as a basis to create and discuss several scenarios aimed at assessing the resilience of the aviation industry. While these studies offer some valuable insights, they primarily rely on qualitative approaches and/or focus on one efficiency driver rather than following a holistic approach.

It should be noted that the majority of studies, including this paper, assess the ANSP level5. Nevertheless, there are some investigations addressing fundamental aspects of capacity provision in ACCs (FABEC 2021b) or specific efficiency drivers (FABEC 2018). Further, (Standfuss, Fichert, and Schultz 2017) provided a methodical approach how to benchmark performance at disaggregated levels. Cross-sectional data analysis, as used in the studies mentioned above, can provide valuable insights into the efficiency of different units during a particular time period. However, this approach does not account for time effects that may impact efficiency values over time. One study by (Bilotkach et al. 2015) utilized Malmquist analysis to evaluate efficiency using data from 2002 to 2011. The study employed "controlled flight hours" and "aircraft movements at the airport" as outputs, and gate-to-gate ATM/CNS costs as input. The study also incorporated input prices for controllers, personnel, capital, and other resources to assess allocative efficiency. However (Standfuss 2021) discovered that the data is not reliable when collected before 20086. In addition, the author suggest avoiding the use of monetary inputs or outputs (see also (Standfuss, Hirte, and Schultz 2022)).

3 Provision of Air Navigation Services

European airspace is among the busiest in the world, and despite a significant reduction in traffic due to COVID-19, demand is now recovering rapidly. In addition, the spatial distribution of traffic remains uneven, with a significant concentration in the core area of Europe, where seven major airports, including London Heathrow, Frankfurt, and Paris Charles de Gaulle, are located within a 1,000 km diameter. To meet the growing demand for and operational performance requirements of air traffic, an ANSP aims to apply smart procedures and tools to provide sufficient capacity while both ensuring a safe and orderly flow of traffic and keeping operational costs low. One paramount goal is to minimize the risk of aircraft collisions. Therefore, ATC uses sequencing and metering techniques to build efficient flows by separating traffic vertically and horizontally. This is a demanding task especially for ANSPs in the core of Europe facing significant peak demand figures, posing notable capacity management challenges (EUROCONTROL 2020c, 2023a). ATC itself consists of "terminal" and "enroute" service units, which differ significantly in their operational procedures. To manage the complex air traffic, especially in congested areas, the enroute part is laterally split into multiple operational levels, known as Area Control Centers (ACC), which themselves comprise multiple sector groups (SG) and further sectors. Each level has specific objectives, is subject to constraints, and is subject to environmental influences.

Depending on the organizational size of the respective ANSP, enroute services are provided in one or more Area Control Centers to cover a specific part of the airspace. These (geographic) areas are designed following different characteristics, e.g., traffic flows or specific altitudes (FABEC 2019). Usually, ACCs are responsible for both upper and lower airspace. However, there are exceptions: Karlsruhe and Maastricht, for example, only provide services for the upper airspace, which is why they are also referred to as Upper Area Control Centre (UAC). It is a common practice to split or collapse (merge) sectors over time to align capacity to current demand following sector opening/closing schemes or configurations, respectively. Splitting a sector in general doubles variable cost of capacity provision but less than doubles available capacity. Furthermore, collapsing sectors are operationally limited to SGs, for which controllers hold a license. Those groups are consequently referred to as licensed areas. Efficient capacity management by air navigation service providers is crucial for meeting the demand of airspace users and requires robust traffic forecasts to plan sufficient resources, i.e., Air Traffic Control Officers (ATCOs). However, the decisions of airspace users may contribute to less predictable and highly volatile traffic flows, posing a permanent challenge to capacity-demand balancing and ultimately leading to inefficiency. Additionally, exogenous factors (as stated in Section 1) can lead to strong fluctuations in demand: Figure 1 depicts a density plot of flights about two years before and two years after the downing of MH17 7 over eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, based on a simulation using NEST (EUROCONTROL 2020b).

Figure 1: Density Plot of flight trajectories two years before and two years after the downing of flight MH17 (Nova 2022).

Especially the MH17 occurrence had extensive ramifications on traffic patterns in Europe. The traffic routes were realigned, using Bulgarian and Romanian airspace for long-haul flights to Asia. Conversely, there was a significant reduction in demand for travel to Moldova. Additionally, Poland and the Baltic states were impacted by diversionary traffic. It goes without saying that these changes in volume and flow had a noticeable impact on several key performance indicators, such as ATCO productivity  (ICAO 2018) and horizontal flight efficiency (HFE) (EUROCONTROL 2021b). The effects of this event were exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, resulting in the closure of Russian airspace to numerous airlines. Consequently, there has been a surge in polar flights and a southward diversion of flights to Asia. This has led to a sharp decline in ATC demand in the Baltic states, and the partial suspension of Asian flights by some airlines in Scandinavian countries also contributes to this external shock. The aforementioned observations highlight the complexity of ATC, as one component of ATM. This understanding is crucial when applying benchmarking. It also indicates that analyzing cross-sectional data - i.e., looking at one time period only - may be insufficient, since local and global events can significantly affect performance values. This is particularly challenging when those effects cannot be quantified. Therefore, panel data analyses enable a better understanding of how these (non-quantifiable) shocks affect the individual as well as the system-wide performance.

4 Approach and Method

For the first stage of the analysis, we consider the operational level of an ANSP. We will first have a look on productivity scores designed for and published by (EUROCONTROL 2019a, 2019b). Second, to calculate DEA scores and Malmquist Indices, we adopt economic models and considerations published by (Standfuss, Hirte, and Schultz 2022). We do not adjust, substitute or complement the models. Since the authors found out that special forms of DEA, such as bootstrap or slack-based techniques, does not improve the process, we only apply standard DEA. We preferred the DEA method as it is a non-parametric and deterministic approach that does not require an a-priori assumption regarding functional relationships between inputs and outputs, and error terms, which helps to minimize the risk of incorrect estimates. DEA uses a linear programming approach to generate a frontier production function that connects all efficient decision-making units (DMUs), i.e. an ANSP. Inefficient DMUs are evaluated by their radial distance from the efficient frontier. This method ensures that inefficient units are compared to their peers, which are units with equivalent production functions. This prevents the comparison and evaluation of widely differing technologies. Applying DEA involves a decision about whether to maximize outputs with given inputs or to minimize inputs for given outputs. Since the output of ANSPs is driven by traffic demand, we decided for an input-oriented DEA. We apply Malmquist DEA because it is capable of measuring efficiency changes over time, accounting for fluctuations in resource utilization (inputs) and service provision (outputs). This involves calculating the Malmquist Index, denoted as M, which is derived from the ratio of Total Factor Productivity (TFP) at two different points in time. This index enables us to quantify time-induced changes in performance and evaluate the relative efficiency of the production process at different points in time. The change in TFP (TFPCH) is determined separately for period 1 (t) and period 2 (t+1), as shown in Figure 2. The two resulting values are usually not equal (Färe et al. 1994) and the Malmquist index represents the geometric mean of both values. That helps to avoid an arbitrary determination of the reference technology8 (Cantner, Krüger, and Hanusch 2007).

Figure 2: Schematic illustration of Malmquist Index, based on the technology in period t and t+1, implying output orientation and constant returns to scale (Fried, Lovell, and Schmidt 2008).

Similarly to the efficiency analysis, the Malmquist Index can be computed either input or output oriented, and is based on distance functions between a DMU and the efficient frontier. Equation [form:MI] illustrates how the TFP change rate between two time periods t and t + 1 can be calculated, based on the input vector x and the output vector y, and using the distance function D between the observed firm and the benchmark technology. M is calculated as the geometric mean of the two resulting quotients. M above 1 indicates growth in productivity, equal to 1 stagnation, and below 1 a decrease (Fried, Lovell, and Schmidt 2008).

M(xt,yt,xt+1,yt+1)=   (Dt(xt+1,yt+1))/(Dt(xt,yt))·(Dt+1(xt+1,yt+1))/(Dt+1(xt,yt))   (1)/(2)

The Malmquist Index relies on two separate components with distinct economic interpretations: The left-hand term in Equation [form:TA] represents the change in technical efficiency (TECH), while there is a residual term on the right-hand side. The latter is commonly referred to as technical advance (TA) and represents an improvement or deterioration in performance that cannot be attributed to changes in technical efficiency.

M(xt,yt,xt+1,yt+1)=(Dt+1(xt+1,yt+1))/(Dt(xt,yt)) ·   (Dt(xt,yt))/(Dt+1(xt,yt)) ·(Dt(xt+1,yt+1))/(Dt+1(xt+1,yt+1))   (1)/(2)

Both equations assume constant returns to scale (CRS). However, when analyzing multiple periods, the size of the production unit is variable as well, which can impact productivity9. To account for this, DEA calculates the distance between the Decision Making Unit (DMU) and the variable returns to scale (VRS) production frontier. This task can be challenging when applying Malmquist DEA because the convex nature of the frontier functions may lead to non-reciprocity issues. As a result, the values of efficiency may differ, as pointed out by (Cantner, Krüger, and Hanusch 2007). Nonetheless, (Coelli et al. 2005) demonstrated that it is possible to decompose the change of technical efficiency under variable returns to scale assumptions, which is illustrated in Equation [form:SE]. The calculation of scale efficiency in Malmquist DEA is based on the decomposition of the left-hand term in Equation [form:TA]. In general, the scale efficiency is determined by comparing the technical efficiency scores under VRS and CRS frontiers, as demonstrated by (Coelli et al. 2005). Assuming variable returns to scale enables the decomposition of (in)efficiency into both technical and scale components. This approach is applied in Equation [form:SE], where efficiency is decomposed into pure technical efficiency (PECH) and scale efficiency change (SECH). The latter represents the geometric mean of the two changes in scale efficiency based on the benchmarks for period 1 and period 2. The "vrs" index indicates technologies with variable returns to scale, while the "crs" index denotes those with constant returns to scale.

(Dt+1(xt+1,yt+1))/(Dt(xt,yt)) = (Dt+1vrs (xt+1,yt+1))/(Dtvrs (xt,yt)) ·   ((Dt+1vrs (xt+1,yt+1))/(Dt+1crs (xt+1,yt+1)))/((Dt+1vrs (xt,yt))/(Dt+1crs (xt,yt)))· ((Dtvrs (xt+1,yt+1))/(Dtcrs (xt+1,yt+1)))/((Dtvrs (xt,yt))/(Dtcrs (xt,yt)))   (1)/(2)

To sum up and in order to facilitate the interpretation of our results: Malmquist analysis involves a calculation of the change in total factor productivity, which can be broken down into two distinct components: a term reflecting changes in technical efficiency and a residual term that indicates technical advances. To more accurately analyze the efficiency terms, we must compare the crs (linear) and vrs (convex) frontier, and subsequently decompose the efficiency term into the pure efficiency change and the scale efficiency change.

5 Development of ANSP Performance in Europe

5.1 Data Analysis

Our study on performance is primarily based on ACE (ATM Cost-Effectiveness) data provided by EUROCONTROL. The data is semi-publicly available (EUROCONTROL 2023b) and contains approximately 120 operational and financial indicators for up to 38 air navigation service providers. Some indicators are differentiated into enroute, terminal, and gate-to-gate perspectives, and we use the latter for our analysis. To ensure data quality, we follow the recommendations of (Standfuss 2021) and exclude data collected before 2008, focusing solely on the operational indicators. At the time of the study, the most recent available data was for 2020.

To provide an overview of the data and emphasize the pan-European heterogeneity, Figure 3 illustrates the development of several general indicators on the European level, while Table 1 presents ANSP-specific data for comparison over time. The two output variables (yellow and orange line), representing enroute10 and terminal11 services of ANSPs, show only smaller changes over time, yet there is a slight increase from 2016 to 2019 before declining due to the impact of COVID-19 in 2020. On the input side, the number of air traffic control officers (ATCOs) measured in Full-Time Equivalences (FTEs) steadily increases, with minor reductions observed in 2018 and 2020 (green line). The figure also highlights the substantial differences in the response times between changes in output and adjustments in resources. For instance, the number of ATCOs decreased by 3% while the outputs decreased by approximately 58%12.

Figure 3: Development of controlled flight hours, movements on airports, and the employed ATCOs between 2008 and 2020.

It is important to note that data at the European level is averaged, as it encompasses 38 observations, respectively 38 ANSPs. These units vary significantly in terms of operational and geographic size, provided services, socio-economic influences, and applied systems, as highlighted in previous studies (FABEC 2019; Standfuss et al. 2019; EUROCONTROL 2019a). As a result of this heterogeneity, the data may be subject to some variations. Table 1 provides descriptive statistics for both operational and financial data, representing the ’gate-to-gate’ perspective. Additionally, the table compares 2019 with 2008, enabling a comprehensive analysis of the development over time. The last column shows the change rate of the mean values in 2019 compared to 2008. The data presented in the table highlight significant heterogeneity in both operational and financial aspects of the European ATM network. In 2019, the largest European airspace, managed by ENAIRE (Spain), was 107 times larger than the smallest one, managed by Slovenia Control. These differences in scale may strongly impact other indicators such as the number of flights, flight hours, and flight distance: Considering enroute operations, French DSNA ranks highest in all of the three listed output indicators, while Moldatsa in Moldova13 has the lowest demand. Looking at terminal operations, German DFS leads with 2.1 million IFR airport movements, which is about 100 times more than the smallest unit, M-NAV of Macedonia14. The analyses also shows that the size of the operational unit has an impact on the required amount of resources, particularly on the number of ATCOs. French DSNA employs the highest number of ATCOs, resulting in the highest total number of ATCO hours. However, the average working time per ATCO varies greatly, ranging from 960 hours for DFS to 2054 hours for NAV Portugal. Due to operational heterogeneity and wage effects, total and average resource costs also differ significantly. For instance, an ATCO hour in Germany is 15 times more expensive than in Armenia. It is important to note that ATCOs are only a part of the human resources, with more employees being involved in administration and other aspects of ATM. The proportion of ATCOs to total staff ranges from 13% in Georgia to 56% in Ireland.

ATC services require not only skilled human resources, but also infrastructure, including capital investments for building and maintaining physical enroute or terminal control units. These resources again vary significantly across different ANSPs, and differences can often be attributed to their size. For instance, France and Spain have the highest number of area control centers with five units each (2019), whereas many smaller ANSPs operate only one ACC. Similarly, the number of towers operated by ANSPs also varies significantly, with French DSNA operating the highest number of towers at 75 (2019), followed by Turkey with 51 towers. In comparison, DFS, which handles the largest number of airport movements, operates only 16 towers, less than a quarter of the number operated by DSNA. In addition to illustrating the significant variation in values between ANSPs, the table also reveals changes over time between 2008 and 2019, along with associated growth rates15. In particular, the number of air traffic controllers has increased, employment costs per ATCO (real terms) have risen, and working hours per year have decreased. Nonetheless, the data shows that both ATCO productivity16 and cost effectiveness17 have improved over the years. This suggests that the growth in output has outpaced the growth in resources, leading to a more productive and cost-effective use of resources by ANSPs.

Table 1: Descriptive Statistics 2008 and 2019
2008 2019 Change
Min Mean Max St. Dev Min Mean Max St. Dev
Airspace size (km²) 18,400 362,540 2,190,000 427,785 20,500 346,400 2,190,000 423,175 -4,5%
No of ACC operational units 1 2 6 1 1 2 5 1 -6,7%
No of TWR operational units 0 12 79 15 0 11 75 14 -12.4%
IFR distance (M km) 0 231 1,505 314 8 330 1,810 401 43.3%
IFR flights controlled 41,020 761,056 2,935,173 739,649 55,299 884,556 3,302,045 793,472 16.2%
IFR Flight-hours controlled 10,426 402,645 2,291,924 506,038 12,716 460,429 2,483,703 562,095 14.4%
IFR airport movements 0 442,552 2,163,665 613,705 0 434,534 2,132,289 558,948 -1.8%
Composite flight hours 13,905 523,078 2,820,189 663,411 20,169 578,680 3,002,716 705,589 10.6%
ATCOs in OPS (FTE) 37 462 2,662 599 50 471 2,813 606 2.0%
Working Time per ATCO 1,145 1,528 2,336 235 960 1,441 2,054 222 -5.7%
Empl. Costs per ATCO (€) 14,629 127,379 385,714 79,602 23,976 141,367 313,888 72,336 11.0%
Total staff 122 1,598 8,734 1,951 164 1,518 7,622 1,839 -5.0%
Share ATCOs on HR 14.4% 28.9% 50.5% 9.4% 18.0% 31.8% 55.8% 9.8% 9.8%
Total costs (M €) 10 266 1,539 379 10 243 1,552 329 -8.8%
Total revenues (M €) 11 254 1,514 364 10 254 1,634 361 0.0%
ATM/CNS costs (M €) 6 180 976 251 5 178 1,091 241 -1.1%
ATCO productivity 0.17 0.78 1.86 0.30 0.21 0.90 2.23 0.34 15.3 
Cost Effectiveness (€) 192.48 449.58 1490.99 215.01 164.85 394.74 843.53 149.01 -12.2%

While the data analysis highlights changes over time, it provides limited insights into the factors that drive these changes, their magnitude and the direction of influence on performance. A panel analysis can offer significant added value in this regard. In the following section, we present the results of a performance benchmarking analysis conducted over several years. This analysis is divided into three steps. The first step examines the trends in ATCO productivity and cost effectiveness to provide a broad overview of the operational and financial performance of ANSPs. In the second step, we use the models developed by (Standfuss, Hirte, and Schultz 2022) to calculate and compare DEA scores across ANSPs. Finally, in the third step, we calculate the Malmquist indices. By conducting this comprehensive analysis, we can better understand the drivers of performance changes and identify areas for improvement to enhance the operational and financial performance of ANSPs. The calculated values represent input data, namely the dependent variables of the second-stage regression analysis, which will be published in an upcoming paper.

5.2 ATCO productivity and Cost-Effectiveness

EUROCONTROL initiated benchmarking of air navigation service providers in the late 1990s, and since then, several metrics have been developed to measure various aspects such as capacity, environmental effects, and costs (EUROCONTROL 2021c). Two key indicators that capture the trade-off between costs and capacity are ’ATCO productivity’ and ’cost-effectiveness’. In this section, we will examine the historical trends of both indicators. This analysis will be useful in interpreting the results of DEA as it considers both metrics as absolute values that do not reflect the distance from an efficient frontier.

Figure 4 presents the ATCO-productivity, measured in Composite Flight Hours (CFH) per ATCO hour, for the five largest and smallest ANSPs, selected based on their total controlled IFR flight hours in 2019. The pan-European average shows a slight increase in productivity between 2009 and 2019, with a decline in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These findings align with those illustrated in Figure 3. Nonetheless, as the average values hide the high level of heterogeneity within Europe, there is considerable variation in the ANSP-specific curves. Generally, the top five ANSPs display higher productivity values than the five smallest units, with a few exceptions. Productivity values of the large ANSPs are mostly above the European average, while those of small ANSPs are invariably below the European average. However, trends vary among the different ANSPs. Small ANSPs exhibit high volatility in productivity values, with significant shifts observed e.g. for MoldATSA and M-NAV. These shifts are likely due to changes in air traffic patterns resulting from the downing of MH17 and the associated closure of parts of Ukrainian airspace, as well as Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Some large ANSPs also show noticable productivity changes, especially German DFS and British NATS, while French DSNA displays nearly constant scores. Spanish ENAIRE and Turkish DHMI show some significant increases in productivity. DHMI exhibits increased productivity between 2009 and 2014 due to growth in traffic and nearly constant ATCO hours, and stagnating scores between 2014 and 2019 as CFH increased at a similar rate to ATCO hours. ENAIRE experienced a tremendous increase in productivity between 2009 and 2010. Upon closer examination, it is evident that traffic remained relatively constant, while ATCO hours decreased by 29%.

Figure 4: ATCO Productivity of five smallest and five largest ANSPs compared to the pan-European average.

The financial indicator represents the operational costs18 per composite flight hour. In other words, a higher value of this indicator implies higher costs and lower performance in the airspace. Figure 5 illustrates that almost all observations are above the pan-European average. This result may be attributed to two factors. First, productivity is lower in smaller ANSPs, as demonstrated in Figure 4. Second, many larger ANSPs are located in countries with higher income levels, affecting also ANSPs’ wage levels. This hypothesis is supported by the example of Turkish DHMI, where wage levels are considerably lower than in countries like Germany. In addition, the effects of the downing of MH17 are partly similar, with the ANSP in Moldova becoming more less cost effective in 2014. Furthermore, ENAIRE managed to increase cost-effectiveness in 2010 by reducing ATCO-hours and subsequently costs. With the exception of Armenian ARMATS and MoldATSA, all scores remained nearly constant over time, excluding 2020.

Figure 5: Cost-effectiveness score of the five smallest and five largest ANSPs compared to the pan-European average.

The observations on productivity and cost-effectiveness provide an initial insight into the performance trends in Europe. However, the measures have limitations: ANSPs use more resources than just ATCOs, and the output measure of Composite Flight Hours has been subject to debate (EUROCONTROL 2020a; Standfuss, Fichert, and Schultz 2018). Therefore, using multi-factorial analysis methods, such as DEA, leads to a more comprehensive understanding. In this study, we will first apply uniperiodic models before applying multiperiodic Malmquist analyses.

5.3 Technical Efficiency

The purpose of this section is to examine the trends in DEA efficiency scores. We utilize both models and results of (Standfuss, Hirte, and Schultz 2022). The authors found that standard DEA models were effective, and that the use of specialized models, such as bootstrapped or slack-based models, did not improve results. Additionally, their study revealed that operational data is more suitable for modeling purposes than financial data. They also identified Maastricht UAC as a significant outlier due to the limited services provided, only covering the upper airspace. However, we used submodels that include Maastricht (A-models) as well as submodels without this ANSP (B-models) to facilitate a comparison of the results. In light of these findings, we use the standard DEA approach and the models presented in Table [table:DEAMod] to calculate and compare the efficiency scores. We utilize a composite input metric, denoted as CIU, which takes into account the number of towers and ACCs, following the logic of CFH. We weight this metric according to the EUROCONTROL standard, as published in (EUROCONTROL 2020a), or by the individual unit cost share of enroute cost to terminal cost, as discussed in (Standfuss, Fichert, and Schultz 2018), indicated by the index i.

Table 2: Descriptive Statistics 2008 and 2019

We conducted our analysis based on 2,878 observations, spanning 13 years, 38 ANSPs, and 6 models. Unfortunately, data for the Armenian and Georgian ANSPs were not available for all years. To present our findings clearly, we divided our discussion into two parts. First, we compared the models using the pan-European mean, allowing for a more precise comparison between them. Figure 6 presents the results for technologies with constant and variable returns to scale. As the graph demonstrates, the scores are relatively stable, indicating that the average distance between the DMUs and the efficient frontier represented by their peers is similar over time. Model 1B achieved the highest efficiency scores, likely because we used five factors, resulting in more DMUs being classified as efficient than in models with only four factors. Additionally, excluding MUAC allowed ANSPs in the MUAC peer group to achieve higher efficiency scores. This trend is evident in all other models, as the B-versions consistently show higher DEA scores than their A-variants. We also observed that these differences diminish when implementing variable returns to scale. Overall, the scores are higher, as assuming VRS leads to a convex production function, attributing inefficiency differences to scale rather than technical factors. Consequently, the distance between inefficient units and the efficient frontier is lower.

Figure 6: DEA scores implying constant (left) and variable (right) returns to scale. Values represent the pan-European average.

Next, we provide a more granular analysis of our results. Specifically, we examine the average efficiency of the Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs) and based on a selection of ANSPs. We chose to use Model 2A for three reasons. Firstly, the models using five factors (1A and 1B) identified more efficient units than the other models, which would make the results less comparable. Secondly, the A-models included MUAC, which could enhance the precision of the FAB analysis. Finally, the differences between models 2 and 3 were negligible19. Figure 7 displays the FAB results on the left side20. Based on the results, it appears that being associated with a FAB positively influences efficiency. The FABs with the highest average efficiency are UKIRL, which includes NATS and IAA, and SWFAB, which includes NAV Portugal and ENAIRE. However, these FABs consist of only two ANSPs, making them more susceptible to extreme values. On the other hand, FABEC ranked third and comprises six highly diverse ANSPs (DFS, MUAC, skyguide, skeyes, LVNL, and DSNA)21, yet still manages high efficiency.

On the right hand side of Figure 7, we present results for some selected ANSPs of different operational sizes. For example, German DFS achieves efficiency in every year we considered. As seen in Figure 4, Turkish DHMI consistently improves efficiency between 2014 and 2018. Further, the consequences of the Russian annexation of Crimea and the downing of MH17 are evident when comparing the efficiency trends, which are positive for the Bulgarian service provider but negative for the Ukrainian ANSP.

Figure 7: DEA scores on FAB (left) and ANSP (right) level. FAB values represent the unweighted average of the coresponding ANSPs

Results exhibit high robustness, with the largest volatility observed in DHMI and the Maltese provider, both due to the positive trend in efficiency scores. Three ANSPs show no volatility at all, achieving efficiency in all years considered: DFS, DSNA, and MUAC. Comparing the results with Model 2B hardly changes the overall picture: The primary difference is that efficiency scores are higher, as MUAC significantly affects the efficient frontier.

5.4 Malmquist Index

To create a harmonized panel for the multiperiodic model, we consolidated the data so that there is an equal number of observations for each year. Therefore, we had to either reduce the number of ANSPs or limit the number of years considered, as data for the Armenian and Georgian ANSPs were incomplete. Since these units are outside of the core area of Europe and EUROCONTROL, we chose to conduct the panel analysis without them, but for all years under consideration. This resulted in a total of 468 data points for A models and 455 data points for B models. We computed Malmquist indices for each ANSP and for each model across the selected period. To consolidate the data at the FAB and European levels, we utilized the geometric mean. The year-over-year change rates were determined by comparing each year’s data to the preceding year’s. The initial year analyzed in our findings is 2019. Additionally, we decomposed the indices into their constituent parts, as outlined in Section 4.

Figure 8 depicts two outcomes of the analysis. The left-hand side provides an overview of the specific trends in the different models. The graph indicates negligible deviations between the models, with the B models exhibiting greater stability in 2014 and 2015. Moreover, the COVID impact on TFP is noticeable, resulting in a substantial shock and a corresponding decline in TFP. However, with the exception of 2015, 2019, and 2020, all models and years22 demonstrate an increase in TFP. Please note that the period shown in Figure 8 is different to previous illustrations in this paper, as it starts in 2009 instead of 2008. This is due to the fact that the Malmquist index represents a growth rate. Therefore, the result for 2009 represents the growth in comparison to 2008. The decomposition of the results of Model 2B is presented on the right-hand side of the graph, where the bold solid orange line represents the TFP change (tfpch), while the thin lines depict technical advance (techch) and efficiency changes (effch), and the dotted lines represent the sub-components of efficiency. Notably, it is evident that the substantial decline in TFP is not attributed to productivity changes (radial distance to the efficient frontier), but rather due to the shift of the production function. Similarly, there is only a minor change in pure (pech) and scale efficiency (sech). This decomposition approach enables us to identify drivers of downturns. For instance, the decrease in TFP in 2015 can be attributed to a lower (average) efficiency score, while technical change is increasing. This may indicate a traffic shift where peer units were faced with higher demand, and/or there was a significantly lower demand for non-peers.

Figure 8: Malmquist Index for different models (left) and the decomposition of the results of Model 2B into components (right)

Examining Model 2B in more detail, we turn our attention to ANSP-specific outcomes. Figure 9 illustrates the change in TFP (geometric mean) between 2009 and 201923. Brown-shaded countries show a decrease in performance, while green-shaded countries indicate an increase in TFP. It is noteworthy that most of the ANSPS locatd in southeastern and eastern parts of Europe, including Ukraine, demonstrated a positive change in TFP, while western ANSPs such as NATS, DSNA, and ENAIRE experienced a decline. The ANSPs in grey-shaded countries found themselves in a stagnating environment. Overall, 25 out of 35 ANSPs achieved a positive average change in TFP. Figure 9 provides some additional insights; however, as the values represent average data, annual values may differ significantly. In consequence, Figure 10 displays on the left-hand side the change rates in TFP for a selection of ANSPs. Notably, the figures depict a more volatile image compared to pan-European or periodic averages, particularly visible for Ukraine, where the ANSP nearly tripled their TFP in 2019. However, extreme TFP growth values are visible for multiple ANSPs, although the years differ (e.g., ENAIRE 2016, NATS or ROMATSA in 2011). Conversely, there are also observations where TFP decreases disproportionately, such as NATS 2010 and ENAIRE 2019. Observing the COVID year 2020, the highest TFP decline was observed for Ukrainian UkSATSE and French DSNA, at about -65%. Despite the significant influence of COVID, we calculated TFP growth for four ANSPs: NATS, PANSA, skyguide, and Avinor, with the latter showing the highest value (+68%).

Figure 9: Geometric mean of change in TFP between 2009 and 2019, Model 2B

On the right-hand side of Figure 10, we demonstrate the decomposed indices for the Polish service provider, PANSA, using Model 2B. Evidently, PANSA is one of four ANSPs to achieve a positive change in TFP. The curves indicate that this was primarily due to changes in efficiency, rather than a shift in the production frontier. Since capital (ACCs / TWRs) cannot be adjusted in the short term, the increase in efficiency is likely due to a relatively smaller decline in demand or an over-proportional decrease in ATCO-hours, or both. Upon analyzing the raw data, we found that PANSA experienced a similar decrease in demand (about 57%) as DFS and DSNA. However, unlike DFS, which increased its ATCO hours, PANSA reduced this input by 12%. A similar trend was observed for Avinor, which had the lowest pan-European decrease in traffic (39%), but also reduced ATCO hours by 26%. Consequently, as shown in the figure, Avinor had an even higher increase in TFP than Polish PANSA. Furthermore, the graph shows that there was no significant change in scale efficiency, implying that PANSA managed to use resources more efficiently than other units. Please note that different scales are used for the graphs to show the changes more clearly.

Figure 10: Malmquist Index for Model 2B for different ANSPs (left) and the decomposition of the results for PANSA into components (right)

6 Conclusion and Way Forward

Evaluating performance in ATM remains an area of great managerial and political interest. Due to the monopolistic position of ANSPs and the complex environment, a comprehensive understanding of the factors that positively or negatively impact performance is still lacking. This study addresses part of this scientific gap by examining changes in predefined performance indicators over time. The primary determinant of an entity’s performance is how effectively it can convert available resources into a pre-set output. We derived further that performance is also related to the size of an ANSP. Larger ANSPs may have higher fixed costs due to their investments in multiple ACCs and towers, while smaller ANSPs may have rather limited capabilities due to limited resources.

In this study, we employ three main approaches. Firstly, we use simple index figures developed by EUROCONTROL to reflect operational and financial performance. These figures are easy to interpret, but have the disadvantage of being difficult to compare in heterogeneous environments. Secondly, we use Data Envelopment Analysis (DEA), distinguishing between six economic models. This method enables us to decompose efficiency values into technical and scalar components. However, as production and cost functions may change over time, time effects should be considered. Therefore, thirdly, we apply a Malmquist analysis to capture technical progress in addition to scalar and technical components extracted from efficiency changes. As assumed in the introduction, local and global shocks are clearly identifiable within the analyses. For instance, a rapid decline in TFPCH due to COVID-19 is apparent. Additionally, several local effects caused by the downing of MH17 and the annexation of Crimea by Russia, as well as the resulting diversion in traffic, can be observed. Except for a few units, TFP in Eastern and Northern Europe tends to increase on average while it decreases in Western Europe. One possible explanation could be the establishment of Eastern European low-cost carriers such as Wizzair or increasing demand for flights into the middle east.

The study offers an initial glimpse into the development of efficiency at different levels of aggregation. However, it should be viewed as a first step. To gain a comprehensive understanding of the factors that contribute to (in-)efficiency, a thorough root cause analysis is necessary. This approach provides a more holistic and in-depth assessment of the factors that impact efficiency in ATM. Therefore, in a subsequent study, we will use the Malmquist Index to identify and quantify the key influencing factors. TFPCH values will serve as dependent variables in regression models that consider both time and unit-specific effects. The independent variables encompass both potential endogenous and exogenous influencing factors, such as traffic characteristics, environmental influences, and legal aspects. This holistic approach ensures that not only a single effect is highlighted, but also interdependencies between multiple factors are taken into account. This approach thus enables the derivation of specific managerial recommendations to enhance performance and promote the creation of a more resilient system in a volatile environment.

The authors aim to update the study as soon as new data is provided by EUROCONTROL’s Performance Review Unit. This allows for a more detailed analysis of the effects of COVID-19 on efficiency at both global and local levels. By incorporating up-to-date data, the study can capture the dynamic changes in the aviation industry due to the pandemic, and provide valuable insights into the impacts on operational performance and efficiency. Additionally, the authors suggest the possibility of conducting an analysis at more granular levels, such as ACC or sector level, although the inclusion of sectors as a Decision Making Unit (DMU) may be debatable. Nevertheless, this approach can offer insights into specific regions or sectors within the aviation system, which can further enrich the benchmarking scheme and contribute to a more accurate root cause analysis.

Furthermore, the authors suggest to include the ANSP of the United States in the benchmarking scheme, which allows for a meaningful comparison between the U.S. and Europe. This helps to address the debates and criticisms regarding performance comparisons between these two regions, and provide a more comprehensive and balanced assessment. In general, the authors emphasize the potential value of extending the benchmarking approach to other regions, as it can contribute to a more robust and accurate analysis. By incorporating additional regions, the root cause analysis and resulting implications can be further enhanced, providing a more comprehensive understanding of the factors influencing performance. However, in order to include more regions, stakeholders first would have to agree on a standardized way of collecting and reporting data.


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