ATM Modernization, Business & GA, Commercial

Single European Sky

By George Marsh | November 1, 2004

A Single European Sky (SES), with greater harmonization of air traffic control (ATC) equipment and procedures, is viewed as the answer to Europe's present fragmented air traffic management (ATM) arrangement. European politicians are pushing ahead with plans to implement SES. But can they deliver?

Air travelers over Europe are apt to view the landscape below as resembling a patchwork quilt. And the nature of that patchwork varies according to the country flown over. The same can be said of Europe's present airspace, which was patched together back in the 1960s from multiple national systems. Loyola de Palacio, Commissioner for Energy and Transport with the European Commission (EC), says that European airspace is segmented into small, inefficient blocks for which a variety of ATC technologies are used. This fragmented system, she argues, results in delays, high costs, extra demands on pilots and controllers, and potential safety risks. The need to accommodate multinational military air traffic worsens the situation.

A Tough Battle

Eurocontrol was formed in 1963 to rationalize Europe's air traffic management. But, while the agency has created extra capacity, it has been less successful in harmonizing procedures or achieving a seamless airspace and infrastructure. The top ranks within the EC, the European Parliament and Eurocontrol, along with many national leaders, agree that something more has to be done if Europe's air transport growth is not to be stunted.

Most leaders are pinning their hopes on an initiative known as Single European Sky. They have been working to provide the legislative basis for this initiative since 2000, and in December 2003, a major enabling milestone was reached. National transport ministers and the European Parliament signed an agreement that includes a framework deal and three implementation rules that cover:

  • Air navigation service provision,

  • Organization and use of airspace, and

  • Interoperability within the air traffic management network.

This draft agreement still must be formally adopted, but there seems little doubt in Brussels and Strasbourg--the legislative capitals of Europe--and elsewhere that this will happen.

The signing prompted a delighted de Palacio to comment: "After four years of work, I am pleased to see that Europe now has a single sky, allowing safe, sustainable growth in air transport." De Palacio may be excused for making SES sound like a "done deal" since, after a protracted and frustrating negotiation period, December's provisional agreement was an important victory. Just two months earlier, the plan had been blocked, when the European Council of Ministers disagreed over issues of sovereignty and military use of national airspace. It took a large Conciliation Committee to hammer out an acceptable solution. And even then the controversial issue of military airspace was hardly resolved, being left the subject of a general policy statement only.

The October 2003 setback was disappointing, given that the Single European Sky lobby had patiently courted nations reluctant to yield control of national airspace. (A number of countries, such as France, declined even to discuss the matter at first.) In addition, suspicious ATC unions saw SES as part of an agenda that included privatization of air traffic services.

These problems long had hampered Eurocontrol's harmonization efforts. Though respected for its technological activities, Eurocontrol does not have the political weight to oblige legislators to overlook national boundaries. The December accord, when formally adopted, should at last give Europe the political tools to go ahead and design its airspace along rational rather than territorial lines.

Stumbling Blocks

Air travelers will not quickly notice any differences as a result of the December accord. National politicians and officials so far have not been asked to sign up to an airspace redesign, since one does not yet exist, even on the back of an envelope. Yet delivering new functional airspace blocks (FABs) is the essence of Single European Sky. Everything else -- fewer control centers, interoperable equipment, common procedures and so on -- relies on airspace redesign.

Functional airspace blocks were an issue that caused the Council of Ministers to falter. And ministers could balk again when asked to agree on proposed blocks. It will take patient diplomacy to persuade them to accept the new airspace boundaries that Eurocontrol eventually will propose. Final detailed regulations, including the airspace redesign, are unlikely to be in place, the European Parliament believes, for another three or four years.

What has concentrated minds in Europe is the awareness of the present system's limitations. These have been heightened by a steep rise in the demand for air travel brought about by emerging low-cost carriers. When each nation controls its own airspace, there simply are too many airspace segments, control centers, handoffs from one control authority to another, radars and control technologies to permit rational, economic flight operations. Flight crews crossing Europe must constantly reselect communication frequencies and alter flight levels and routes in line with national clearances. They also must adjust to the regional accents of a succession of en-route controllers and adapt to different national procedures. An estimated 350,000 aircraft flight hours per year are wasted due to inefficient ATM and airport delays.

Gradual Implementation

European legislators are realistic enough to know that the extension of a Single European Sky -- from the Atlantic coast in the west to the Ural Mountains in the east and from Scandinavia in the north to the Mediterranean in the south -- will not emerge any time soon. Progress probably will be gradual.

Pan-European Airspace

The first sign of an emerging SES will be a continuous, pan-European block of upper airspace above 28,500 feet (FL285). Some experts believe that this European upper flight information region (EUFIR) could be operational within a few months. In three years, the success of the transnational airspace will be assessed, after which it is hoped that the threshold can be lowered below FL285.

The real challenge, however, will be reorganizing lower airspace into functional airspace blocks. To achieve this, Europe must persuade its many ATC authorities to cede functions and autonomy. They also will be asked to re-equip where necessary, harmonize procedures, collaborate routinely and adopt new technologies in an interoperable fashion. The success of this effort will determine the avionics that aircraft will need for operating over Europe.

Furthering the Dialogue

In time-honored European fashion, a committee has been formed to take SES plans forward. The Single Sky Committee comprises civil and military representatives from the now (since May 2004) 25 member states. It also is open to neighboring states like Norway and Switzerland. The group held the first of a planned series of monthly meetings in February. It will work with another new entity, the Industry Consultation Body, charged with ensuring that as many interested parties as possible across Europe will have the chance to influence the final SES outcome. Ben van Houtte, head of the European Commission's Air Traffic Management Unit, says he wants ideas to come from the grassroots level, reflecting a preference for a bottom-up approach in establishing functional airspace blocks.

Member states are now obliged, van Houtte told delegates at the 2004 ATC Maastricht conference, to consider how airspace is managed at present and how it could be better optimized. The intention is to have the states and their air navigation service providers (ANSPs) initiate the necessary changes, while referring any disputes over FABs to the Single Sky Committee for help in finding a solution.

Even without SES, Europe has gradually been improving its ATC provision, thanks largely to Eurocontrol's efforts. Initiatives to halve the vertical separation minimum to 1,000 feet; allow aircraft to depart from fixed VOR, waypoint-defined air routes in favor of area navigation (RNAV); and use more closely spaced (8.33-KHz) VHF radio frequencies together have improved capacity significantly. Such programs have both accustomed the industry to the idea of progressive improvement and have narrowed the gap between the SES vision and current ATM provision.

Harmonization History

Eurocontrol also has made attempts to achieve harmonization. Its major European Air Traffic Control Harmonization and Integration Program (EATCHIP) was, after several years, succeeded by the European Air Traffic Management Program (EATMP). Both programs were intended to integrate the management of civil and military airspace across member nations. Some years ago Eurocontrol implemented a central flow management unit (CFMU) to monitor traffic flow and rationalize the use of en-route airspace. And as long ago as 1972, Eurocontrol provided a notable forerunner for SES by establishing combined upper airspace controlled from its control center in Maastricht, the Netherlands.

The Maastricht upper airspace control center improved ATM in a critical swath over southern England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, where north/south and east/west routes cross and where two-thirds of Europe's air traffic delays arise. Some success also was achieved with the Central European Air Traffic Services (CEATS) scheme to unify airspace over central Europe and the Balkans.

Room for Improvement

But, given Europe's multiple jurisdictions and their jealous territoriality, the gains did not go far enough. Even the combined weight of Eurocontrol (with 29 members), the European Community, and the influential European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC, representing 38 states) has not been enough to open up the skies.

At last, though, Europe apparently has accepted that only a major airspace redesign, leading towards a Single European Sky, can make the required difference. Victor Aguado, Eurocontrol's director general, told delegates at Maastricht 2004 that the SES program should enable capacity to grow by 5 percent a year. Reducing present ATC fragmentation while harmonizing rules and organizational arrangements will, Aguado believes, avoid inconsistencies that now adversely affect traffic flow and regularity. Stakeholders will be encouraged to collaborate in creating fewer but larger, more efficient blocks of managed airspace that reflect operational requirements rather than historical structures. A more systematic and binding approach also is likely to enhance safety.

Single European Sky is intended to combine civil and military ATC authorities in a more constructive collaboration. This is important, given that large blocks of airspace currently are set aside for military use. In return for relaxing their restrictive "ownership" of these blocks, the military sector will gain a greater say in organizing ATC and in rulemaking. It also will benefit by being able to use airspace in a more optimum way. Nevertheless, achieving the desired civil/military interface without interfering with member states' national defense and security priorities will require finesse.

Under SES, Eurocontrol will receive greater political backing in its efforts to introduce new technologies. The European Commission will be able to cut through decision making difficulties, building on cooperation where this has proved successful and offering new mechanisms where it has failed. Cooperation will be encouraged between ATC services, equipment makers, airlines and controllers with a view to introducing new equipment that delivers better performance.

Rules and Standards

In addition to establishing the EUFIR and FABs, Single European Sky will require the adoption of common rules and standards. Rules are needed on how to classify airspace, design routes and sectors, manage air traffic flows, and establish the flexible use of airspace. A common certification system also will be needed for providers of communication, navigation and surveillance (CNS) equipment and for meteorological and aeronautical information services. Procedures must be agreed upon to verify the technical, operational and financial capabilities of the ANSPs, many of which will be operating transnationally.

Human resources, safety, security, quality, reporting systems and liability insurance will be among the elements requiring standardization. Human resource aspects will include a single European ATC officer license with common competence, age, medical and linguistic standards, and institutional framework. These standards, based on International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and Eurocontrol models, will unify the market for ATC officers and enhance the freedom of personnel to work anywhere in Europe.

The certification system in an SES environment will need to accommodate the more rigorous separation that Europe wants between service providers and regulatory bodies. This begs the question of who the regulator should be. Eurocontrol is arguably too much a service provider to be regulator, as well. The European Community could assume the role through a new body that would be advised by Eurocontrol. Or the task could be assigned to the new European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Whatever body gets the job, its task should become simpler with time because, as Single European Sky proceeds, there should be fewer organizations to regulate.

Within a decade the concept of one service provider per country is likely to give way to perhaps a half dozen pan-national providers. On the other hand, the need for regulation could become greater, given that a number of those providers would be run as corporatized or privatized entities. As some see it, the rational notion of a single supranational service-providing body probably will remain a long-term ideal.

Standardized Equipment

Another issue is the definition of standards for ground equipment and avionics. In determining technical matters, Eurocontrol and the EC are committed to a dialogue conducted with stakeholder-representing bodies, such as the Air Traffic Alliance (ATA), the European Association of Aerospace Industries (AECMA), the Association of European Airlines, the Air Traffic Management Working Group, the recently formed Industry Consultation Body, and a new social dialogue group yet to be formed. The ATA--comprising EADS, Airbus and Thales--already has submitted a proposal to the European Commission for a large-scale industrial program in support of SES. Meanwhile, AECMA is working on an ATM roadmap, setting out an industry vision for the implementation of a future European ATM system.

Under its ATM2000+ strategy, Eurocontrol encourages ANSPs to:

  • Adopt common, or at least interoperable, deconfliction tools,

  • Use converging situational awareness technologies,

  • Move towards satellite-based navigation, and

  • Strive for a common air-ground data link standard.

Van Houtte believes that mandatory implementation rules will be necessary to rationally introduce new equipment and procedures in a synchronized fashion. He accepts that it will take several years to achieve an SES. Considerable investment will be a stumbling block, he believes, even though the improvement ultimately will save costs.

Public Funding?

To help finance the investment, "the use of public funding is under consideration," van Houtte adds. The Trans-European Network-Transport (TEN-T), for instance, is seen as one possible funding tool, providing up to half the cost of preimplementation studies. Eurocontrol is another funding source.

Despite all the difficulties, the institutional framework for SES is assuming final ratification. If SES can avoid falling into the trap of being too much of an edifice designed by committee, the once unlikely vision of a Single Sky for Europe may actually become reality.

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