Europe’s grand air traffic management project may finally be coming together as years of research translate into action. Strategic changes such as assessing navigation charges to flights as a whole rather than a series of discrete phases have also encouraged airlines. Operationally, however, European airspace is still defined by a tangle of national borders laid down largely before the invention of the airplane.
The European Union (EU) is beset by threats to its cohesion, perhaps more than ever before. The single currency is struggling without deeper political integration, and Britain threatens to undermine this entire, shaking edifice with a June 23 referendum on membership.
Against this backdrop, prospects for a Single European Sky (SES) might appear bleak. After all, like the EU, SES is a project that relies on international cooperation, currently bogged down by squabbles over sovereignty.
Nonetheless, 12 years after its legislative framework was assembled in four EU regulations (SES I), the SES is at a turning point as new technologies and processes start to be deployed. These have been developed under the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) program, which receives the bulk of the €3.8 billion ($4 billion) allocated by the EU to SES between 2004 and 2020. Of this sum, about €2.6 billion is still to be spent, some of which should drift into the aftermarket for aircraft that need retrofits of new datalink and other communications equipment.
“Today we are at the most sensitive moment because we have started the SESAR deployment and we have the budget to deploy it. We can implement a new ATM infrastructure and make a real step forward, so it’s really up to the SESAR deployment manager not to miss this unique opportunity,” says Philippe Merlo, director of air traffic management (ATM) at Eurocontrol, a non-EU body that oversees Europe’s air traffic and is responsible for about one-third of the SESAR program.
Merlo says the SES project is about halfway complete. Prior to 2008, its goals were a tenfold improvement in safety, tripling of Europe’s airspace capacity, halving of ATM costs, and 10% reduction in aviation’s environmental impact. However, those targets, though not rescinded, are now regarded as out of date due to the unexpected hit to demand growth caused by the financial crisis.
Yet progress has been patchy, and reaching the midpoint of the project as a whole does not mean commensurate gains for each of its individual goals. Cost is a glaring example. Research by Eurocontrol found that in 2011 air traffic control in the SES zone employed about 25% more staff than in the U.S. Air Traffic Organization (the FAA’s ATM equivalent), yet Europe’s extra manpower was responsible for only about half as many flight hours. The result of such inefficiency was an overall ATM cost in Europe about 60% higher than in the U.S.
And while those figures may also seem out of date, for airlines it’s still very much 2011. “Overall, SES progress has been much too slow; the benefits for airline operations in terms of efficiency and cost savings are yet to come,” says Thomas Reynaert, managing director of Airlines for Europe (A4E), a body formed by Europe’s largest carriers to lobby for quicker action on a single sky.
The fruits of SESAR research are now ripening across 84 implementation projects, in which 23 of Europe’s air navigation service providers (ANSP) are participating. There are six strands of development: arrival management and performance-based navigation in busy terminal areas, airport integration into the new ATM system, flexible airspace management, network collaborative management, and the initial deployment of systemwide information management (SWIM).
An example of the first strand—performance-based navigation—is the already-completed London Airspace Management Program, which has introduced changes such as merged arrival points over the sea rather than land for London City Airport-bound aircraft and changes to departure routes that allow aircraft to climb more steeply after takeoff.
A4E, meanwhile, has been encouraged by new measures at London Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, to separate aircraft by time rather than distance, which has cut delays and cancellations due to strong headwinds. “We want to see many more practical examples like this improving the efficiency of the system,” says Reynaert.
At the vanguard of technological change has been the Eurocontrol-led SWIM, a data communication system that will serve as the central nervous system of the SES. A standardized data model for aeronautical information—AXIM—already has been completed, as has one for flight plan exchanges (FIXM), while similar work is underway for weather information.
“This type of technology will greatly improve the connectivity of all the players in the ATM field, dramatically improving predictability because everybody will be able to receive all the data generated by other players,” says Merlo.
The focus is interoperability, as enshrined in a second package of regulations (SES II) that the EU passed in 2009 to define shared technical standards and ensure Europe’s many ATM players communicate in a common language. Global standardization is another priority recognized in the EU’s December 2015 update to its ATM Master Plan. This is because the U.S. and European ATC systems will serve as templates for others around the world.
“Global interoperability must be ensured in this modernization process, and a global view of all activities is needed to ensure the competitiveness of the European airline industry,” says Reynaert.
Dysfunctional Airspace Blocks
While A4E praises the EU’s latest master plan for “finally delivering the scope to drive toward a more efficient, performance-oriented European ATM system,” it rails about the “failed” concept of Functional Airspace Blocks (FAB). These are the European Commission’s attempt to overcome the fragmented nature of European airspace by dividing it into nine blocks, rather than defining it by national borders. Examples include the U.K.-Ireland FAB and FABEC, which groups the ANSPs of Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
FABs were at the heart of initial legislation about SES in 2004, yet the commission complains that foot-dragging by member states is still delaying their operational implementation, resulting in extra costs to the air traffic system of €5 billion per year.
Determining why FABs still exist largely on paper rather than in practice, means addressing the most contentious issue: the limit of national sovereignty. For the SES, this means a country’s ability to control its own airspace. Under the FAB regime, many smaller countries fear relinquishing power to the ANSPs of larger neighbors.
Merlo says Eurocontrol is key as the protector of smaller ANSPs, reassuring them that they have a role to play in a changing system. “In the provisional council of Eurocontrol, which is our board, even the smallest countries can make proposals and explain their difficulties,” he says.
That said, air traffic in the U.S. is arguably managed much better because it is overseen by one ANSP versus 37 in Europe. Alongside its role as conciliator and mediator, Eurocontrol is pushing for the centralization of certain shared functions to improve efficiency and drive cost savings. Merlo admits this is a “sensitive discussion,” but progress has been made in areas such as data communication. Among the 14 prospects for centralization that Eurocontrol has put out to tender are a service to check the consistency of flight plans against airport slots and one for the collection and provision of airspace management data.
Eurocontrol itself already performs a quasi-centralized function in its role as network manager, receiving all flight plans and radar tracking data in Europe. This information is then distributed to the different ANSPs, but Eurocontrol’s bird’s-eye view allows it to alleviate potential traffic overloads via conference calls and collaboration with relevant ANSPs.
The rise of privatized and partly privatized ANSPs in Europe should benefit the SES, since commercial demands usually encourage the innovation and efficiencies the European Commission wants to see. On the other hand, privatization’s driving force is competition—anathema to SES’s goal of ANSPs working closer together.
An example of how competition can harm systemwide efficiency is flight planning, in which airlines don’t choose the most direct route, but rather one that overflies the cheapest ANSPs.
The European Commission estimates that SES structures have helped halve flight-routing inefficiency, and its latest batch of regulations, SES II+, aims to continue this with measures to avoid dilution of performance targets.
But the legislation is in limbo due to Spain’s insistence that U.K.-governed Gibraltar be excluded. The European Commission describes resolution of this issue as a “most urgent priority” for the SES.
And while Spain is probably using the issue to vent simmering resentment about Gibraltar, it is also fitting that Europe’s single sky is being held up by its oldest dispute over national sovereignty.