How high is the productivity ratio

Comparison of US and European air traffic control

The air navigation services in Europe and the United States of America can be compared on the basis of a similar overall size of the airspace or the volume of traffic. To this end, EUROCONTROL (European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation) carried out an investigation into the American and European control centers. Parts of the research showed one more efficient operation of American control centers. It was found that the cost per hour of controlled flight in European airspace is around 60 percent higher lay [ECTR03n].

On average, the American air traffic controller (ATCO) handles 29 percent more air traffic hours in one working hour than his European colleague. In addition, American pilots have around 32 percent more working hours, which results in a difference of 1200 working hours (1700 compared to 2900 working hours) in a year-on-year comparison. Both factors lead to a productivity ratio of 1.7 between the American and European ATCOs [ECTR03n].

Figure 1: Comparison of US / European cost effectiveness at system level [ECTR03n]


The main reasons for this were the more flights handled by US air traffic controllers and the lower operating costs of the air traffic control points (excluding ATCO personnel costs). The possibility of using the staff more flexibly, adapted to the fluctuations in traffic, enables more efficient operation. The civil-military coordination within the ATFM (Air Traffic Flow Management) also contributes to higher productivity in the USA.

The higher operating costs of the European centers (with the exception of controller personnel costs) are due to a larger number of employees in Europe and their comparatively higher wage costs. The operating costs are on average 34 percent higher than those of the American air navigation service provider. The higher wage costs for the air traffic controller of around 41 percent are offset by the higher number of working hours and the lower total operating costs, so that with a factor of 0.94 there is almost a balance. The study shows the differences and potential for optimization. Different legal, economic and socio-economic boundary conditions as well as a different operational environment are taken into account.

On the other hand, the guaranteed level of security of both systems is not taken into account, so that a difference cannot be seen from the available data. The same applies to the service quality, which is primarily reflected in the punctuality of the flights. One advantage of the US air traffic control system is that the interfaces between most control centers in the US are on a purely national level and simplify the handover process of air traffic, while in the European air traffic area there are often international interfaces.

The overall higher air traffic control costs, on average 70 percent based on a gate-to-gate approach, are ultimately borne by the airlines and thus by the passengers. The following areas were identified as the most important influencing factors in the study:

  • Social and cultural differences: This includes the generally lower working hours in Europe, the conversion of which cannot be easily implemented.
  • Traffic complexity and variability: The complexity factor represents the difference in performance, but no major difference could be determined.
  • Resource use flexibility: The central element of the higher efficiency achieved is the better adaptation of the personnel situation to the traffic conditions. In Europe, staffing levels have remained unchanged for years and there are indications that the practices of some air navigation service providers may bring improvements.
  • Total cost of ownership: With the exception of pilot salaries, the costs of air navigation service providers in Europe are much higher and the total workforce is higher.
  • Air traffic management: Traffic flow control is planned one day in advance in Europe, while in the US it is planned within a few hours before the flight event. A greater number of procedures are available and the delay in flights on the ground practiced in Europe is only applied as the very last solution. Decision-making and optimization processes are continued in consultation with all air traffic participants and receive coordinated solutions [BDF18].