Frankfurt Roaring fighter jets are rarely seen in the German sky. That will change starting this Monday. Then “Air Defender” starts, the biggest maneuver since NATO was founded. The planning has been going on for months, the logistics are complex. The Air Force and the US Air Force are in charge.
10,000 soldiers from 25 countries practice the deployment of air forces from June 12th to 23rd. 250 aircraft – transporters and fighter jets – will take off and land. The USA alone relocates more than 100 aircraft to German airports.
The base airports for the exercise are Jagel/Hohn in Schleswig-Holstein, Wunstorf in Lower Saxony, Lechfeld in Bavaria, Spangdahlem in Rhineland-Palatinate, Volkel in the Netherlands and Caslav in the Czech Republic.
The states are very interested in the exercise, and Russia’s attack on Ukraine has shaken many politicians awake. The aim is to show that the alliance area “can be defended quickly and effectively,” said Federal Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, explaining the large-scale maneuver repeatedly.
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There is good news for the citizens: they should not practice at night or on weekends.
Why is civil air traffic affected by the NATO exercise?
For the maneuver, three large areas over Germany are reserved exclusively for military aircraft for several hours on weekdays. The southern area extends roughly across Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg to Rhineland-Palatinate. It will be closed between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.
In the north, the corridor stretches from Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein to across the North Sea. The military want to practice here between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. The third airspace is in the east of the republic over Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and the Baltic Sea. It is closed to commercial aircraft between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Air Defender affects large parts of German airspace. During the closure times, airlines are required to fly around the affected areas. For safety reasons, commercial aircraft and military jets should not get too close. Some of the soldiers fly on sight.
The problem: The airspace over Germany is already narrow even without military exercises. Above all, there are bottlenecks in the so-called upper airspace from an altitude of 7.5 kilometers. Above all, overflights take place at this altitude. They have shifted towards Germany since the beginning of 2022 due to the blocking of Ukrainian airspace. The second effect of the Ukraine war: Even without Air Defender, military air traffic over Germany has increased, at times by up to 60 percent. This exacerbates the bottleneck. Now Air Defender is added.
What does Air Defender mean for my flight?
Since all pandemic requirements have been lifted, air traffic has been growing significantly again. It is true that fewer people fly in Europe than before the crisis. There are too few new aircraft, the manufacturers cannot deliver on time because parts and engines are missing. Nevertheless, the sky is already quite full again. Anything that disrupts normal operations immediately has significant consequences.
Defense Minister Pistorius has promised to keep the effects of the maneuver on civil aviation as low as possible. However, in a joint letter, Pistorius and Federal Transport Minister Volker Wissing acknowledged that there will be repercussions.
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The European air traffic control authority Eurocontrol assumes that up to 800 flights have to be diverted every day. Eurocontrol has calculated the consequences in several scenarios. In the worst of all cases, the cumulative delay in one day could be as much as 50,000 minutes. Other scenarios see less severe restrictions.
What makes the assessment of possible consequences so difficult: In aviation, everything is tightly timed. If planes are not where they are supposed to take off the next day, or if there are no crews on site because they are stranded elsewhere, the flight plan very quickly gets completely muddled. Such domino effects can hardly be cushioned in advance by appropriate planning.
Travelers must be prepared for disruptions from Monday. This could particularly affect vacationers in North Rhine-Westphalia. Because the summer holidays there begin on June 22nd – Air Defender only ends one day later.
How do aviation and politics want to take countermeasures?
Even though politicians and the aviation industry have regularly exchanged views on the major maneuver in recent weeks, there is a certain degree of uncertainty among airlines and airports as to how they should deal with the situation. Flight plans are still being worked on. However, the industry expects that a lot can change after the first few days of maneuvers and experience.
At the same time, attempts are being made to increase the scope for take-offs and landings. The strict ban on night flights at many German airports is to be relaxed. Air traffic is still permitted in Stuttgart until 2 a.m. In Frankfurt, the operating time was extended to midnight – but only for flights that were delayed due to the maneuver. The authorities in Hamburg and Düsseldorf will probably be more generous.
What can I do if there are problems with my flight?
The same applies to flight cancellations due to military maneuvers: passengers are entitled to alternative transportation or a refund of the ticket costs. The passenger rights portal Flightright points this out. As a rule, the airline should offer an alternative connection.
If this does not happen, the passenger can look for one himself and claim the costs for it back from the airline. This also applies if the train is chosen as a substitute. If there is an alternative only on the following day, the airline must also arrange for an overnight stay.
On the other hand, customers will probably have to do without the compensation under EU law that is common in many other cases. The exercise should be classified as an exceptional circumstance, explains Claudia Brosche from Flightright: “Therefore there is little prospect of compensation being paid.”
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