Air Traffic Management (ATM) of Europe’s highly fragmented airspace for now is dis-integrated. The European Commission (EC) and Eurocontrol have a vision for a very different future. But their dream of a Single European Sky (SES) with just one or two major air-traffic control centers, a single advanced ATM infrastructure and no chokepoints remains just that, a dream.
So much so that Giovanni Bisignani, director general and CEO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), speaking at the Aviation and Environment Summit in Geneva in April, described the present state of affairs as embarrassing. Bisignani added that a genuine SES, when implemented, should be able to deliver savings in CO2 emissions of 12 million tonnes. Airbus CEO Tom Enders went one better, describing the current situation as scandalous.
Now, though, there are signs of movement. In collaboration with stakeholders, the EC and Eurocontrol have developed a Master Plan to deliver by 2020 a transformed ATM that could increase air traffic capacity threefold, drastically reduce aviation’s environmental impact, halve ATM costs per flight and boost safety levels across the industry.
The EC and other official agencies are funding the program’s first two, preparatory, phases. In the third phase, industry is expected to bear the burden of deploying whatever final infrastructure is agreed. Eurocontrol will provide a coordinating role throughout.
The overall program goes by the acronym SESAR — Single European Sky ATM Research — and is a successor to SESAME, the earlier SES Implementation Program, which was launched in the first instance by ATM equipment manufacturers. SESAR can be likened to the NextGen concept in the United States and has many elements in common. Indeed, worldwide interoperability, including with legacy systems, is one of the plan’s intentions.
A major focus within SESAME was the re-design of European airspace according to operational needs rather than in zones roughly defined by national boundaries as at present. But progress in achieving these larger functional airspace blocks (FAB) has been hampered by different national interpretations and interests. SESAR, while still requiring FABs, focuses more on a complementary aspect, that of ATM structural modernization. An underlying thought is that future evolution of ATC automation toward a single, Europe-wide integrated communications and surveillance network will, with commensurate changes in the responsibilities and airspace purview of controllers, make FABs less relevant (though far from irrelevant). SESAR can thus move ahead, to an extent side-stepping national airspace wrangles.
With the EC, Eurocontrol and most stakeholders behind it, SESAR now seems to have genuine momentum. Early this year, Eurocontrol’s new director general, David McMillan, launched a joint Eurocontrol/International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers Association publication, "A Collaborative Approach to the Future," which outlines a plan for European ATM modernization.
SESAR’s Master Plan, accepted by Eurocontrol on April 21, is the means — along with a work program for 2008-2013 — by which an earlier-defined ATM target concept can be achieved. The Master Plan and the work program were the last two of six deliverables required under the SESAR Definition phase, the first of the three major program phases. The Master Plan was developed by a consortium of nearly 50 members led by Eurocontrol.
Now that the plan is on the table, McMillan faces the daunting task of persuading member states, air navigation service providers (ANSP), airlines, airport operators and equipment manufacturers to work together to make it happen. He also has to deal with various associated partners wanting an input to the process, including military and state airspace users, safety regulators, staff associations and research organizations.
Given the scale of this challenge, it’s little wonder that McMillan apparently wishes to engineer a personality change for Eurocontrol so that it is in future seen as more collaborative than some airspace users have previously given it credit for.
Central to the ATM plan is the idea that, instead of flying a non-direct route, making multiple heading and altitude changes and repeated VHF handovers between ANSPs, then ending with a stepped descent to the destination runway, a future flight will follow a more ideal path in space and time, an optimum 4-D trajectory in fact. This optimum path is referred to as a reference business trajectory (RBT). By 2020, according to a SESAR report, the concept should ensure that fewer than 5 percent of flights will use more fuel than required for an ideal trajectory, and that even for this minority, extra fuel consumed will average less than 5 percent. Fewer than 2 percent of scheduled flights requesting a departure time change, the report says, will incur a delay penalty greater than three minutes.
Clearly, these are significant business benefits to look forward to. However, RBTs will have more than a business pay-off, benefiting the community at large in terms of a reduced environmental footprint with reduced emissions and noise.
Under the RBT concept, speed en route will be varied to avoid traffic conflicts, each flight having to meet required times of arrival (RTA) at key points, including the destination runway. RBTs will be dovetailed to sequence arrivals at the destination airport so that runway capacity is maximized. "Clients" will request their ideal trajectory for each intended flight. The ATM system will clear this, preferably unaltered but otherwise with as little change as possible, and transmit the cleared RBT back to the aircraft.
Feeding the clearance directly into the flight management system (FMS) on a suitably equipped aircraft will ensure that the cleared trajectory is accurately and automatically flown, under the supervision of the flight crew and oversight of air-traffic controllers.
Computer dovetailing of RBTs will eliminate most traffic conflicts, but some will inevitably still occur. These, the plan suggests, will be resolved collaboratively by the aircrew and ground controllers, and trajectories revised accordingly. Deconfliction and other trajectory management tools will contribute to the process.
Achieving all this requires evolved equipment on the ground, in the air and in space. All these technologies are available or within reach: augmented satellite navigation, backed up by inertial, DME or enhanced Loran systems to meet tight Required Navigation Performance (RNP) standards; a microwave or other precision approach system in case of major satellite outage during the approach; data links for exchanging data, connecting directly to aircraft flight management systems where required; ADS-B with ground radar back-up for keeping track of aircraft and maintaining traffic awareness. The latest generation of Airbus and Boeing airliners already are equipped with most of the necessary avionics.
More work needs to be done in some areas, such as automated flight planning, deconfliction and self-separation tools, weather forecasting and networking. In terms of the latter, for example, SESAR envisages a communications network dubbed the joint System-Wide Information Management (SWIM) system that would enable flight crews, the airline, ANSPs, the departure and destination airports — all the parties having a direct interest, in fact — to make decisions collaboratively as the situation develops. Such collaboration will be necessary to allow for unforeseen events like runway blockages, technical problems, weather and capacity shortfalls on the ground. Achieving it will require set procedures and protocols as well as the necessary technology.
Even so, the equipment supply community appears confident that, technologically speaking, both the SES and NextGen could be delivered within a few years. But overcoming political, institutional, organizational and economic hurdles in Europe, as well as the present attachment to legacy systems, will take longer.
The presentation of the Master Plan and work program at a stakeholders’ forum in Rome on May 6 virtually drew SESAR’s Definition phase to a close. The workshop provided the opportunity for clarification and discussion. Now, having defined a roadmap for the future of Europe’s ATM and, provided this is given final political endorsement, SESAR can move into its second major phase — Development.
Bernard Miaillier, SESAR project manager at Eurocontrol, characterizes the phase change as "moving from set-up mode to cruise." In the Development phase, the projects identified in the work program will be broken down into tasks that will then be allocated to consortium members or to outside bodies via a tender process. Solutions will be built on systems that exist and are in use already, those that are almost mature, and new solutions requiring further research and development. During this period, a wide variety of activities taking place will include identifying what further research is needed before European ATM can be re-engineered, ensuring a "buy-in" from all the parties concerned; defining required changes to the regulatory infrastructure; and marshaling the necessary investment. These and associated tasks will stretch this phase to 2014.
The Development phase is to be run by the SESAR Joint Undertaking (JU), a legal entity similar to that set up to lead and coordinate activities on Galileo, Europe’s emerging satellite navigation system. The JU will play a pivotal role in organizing the work program into packages, securing funding, focusing European R&D resources, updating all stakeholders on progress as the work proceeds, and reporting on results. It also will update the SESAR Master Plan as necessary.
At the end of Phase 2, the JU will be terminated since industry, with a coordinating lead provided by Eurocontrol, is expected to implement the third and final phase using its own resources from 2014.
That final "crunch" phase will be Deployment, when all the required technologies, regulations and infrastructure are rolled out, commissioned, validated and put into operation. In the words of Eurocontrol, the Deployment phase will be a "large-scale production and implementation of the new ATM infrastructure, composed of fully harmonized and interoperable components which guarantee high-performance air transport activities in Europe."
SES legislation, much of it already in place, will be used as necessary to synchronize the actions and plans of the various stakeholders and bring together the necessary resources. The legislation is currently in the process of being re-framed to take account of new circumstances and technical developments. This, concedes Eurocontrol’s McMillan, will generate plenty of debate as it progresses through the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.
Will everything be exemplary after the Deployment phase? Will airlines feel assured that they can achieve flights with the shortest possible time and distance from the departure gate to the destination gate, with the lowest fuel consumption? Unfortunately, history suggests that high aspirations are not often wholly fulfilled. One major fly in the ointment is Europe’s chronic shortage of space — at least as perceived by local populations in the areas of greatest need — for airport expansion and extra runways.
Eurocontrol itself has admitted that it will do little good to triple en-route capacity through ATM improvement if inadequate airport infrastructure causes gridlock on the ground and fills holding patterns in terminal airspace. The agency is on record as saying that, in some areas, targets for capacity and cost effectiveness can only be met given "supplemental actions such as additional runways and functional airspace blocks." This makes the point again that FABs, though not the be-all and end-all, are still necessary until advanced predictive tools can be delivered a decade or so from now.
Persuading airspace users and service providers that there is a strong enough business case to warrant making the investment necessary for SESAR’s full deployment will be a tough call unless progress can be made on these additional fronts. On the other hand, there is now widespread acceptance that a thorough overhaul of Europe’s ATM infrastructure has to happen. In the vanguard of the convinced are Airbus and Boeing who, together with their customers, are impatient for the avionic capability already being built into their airliners to be utilized to the fullest. Under an agreement signed in Geneva, the airframers are working more closely on environmental matters, with an early focus on the interoperability of ATM and input to SESAR.
In essence, Europe faces a choice: whether to soldier on with the piecemeal "sticking plaster" approach adopted to date — 8.33kHz VHF, CPDLC, RVSM, CDAs, RNAV and other remedial initiatives — or go for a radical and comprehensive solution. If the bolder and more promising course mapped out by SESAR is followed, and if airport capacity keeps up, Europe should by 2020 have an ATM system to be proud of.
European airports, Air Navigation Service Providers and manufacturers have been named to an initial core group of "candidate members" of the SESAR Joint Undertaking (SJU), the public-private partnership formed in 2007 to manage the SESAR Development phase.
Following a call to industry last summer that attracted 25 entities, 15 were selected for the initial core group, joining SJU founding members Eurocontrol and the European Commission. Manufacturers selected were Airbus, Alenia Aeronautica, Indra Sistemas, Selex, Thales, the North European ATM Industry Group and Honeywell.
Members of the organization will "manage and drive the development phase of SESAR," have a seat on the Administrative Board, with voting rights, and play a key role in preparing for the deployment phase, according to the SJU.
"We are currently discussing with the 15 candidate members and with Eurocontrol — who does what, who leads what, who is responsible for what. It’s going quite well," reported Patrick Ky, SJU executive director.
Ky, an engineer who headed the European Commission’s SESAR program and previously worked for the French Civil Aviation Authority, was named SJU executive director in October 2007. He provided an update on the organization May 13 at the RTCA 2008 Symposium in Chantilly, Va.
"The SESAR Joint Undertaking is a very strange animal. We are a private company under Belgian law, which was created by the EU governments," Ky said. "Our responsibilities are very simple — it’s first the execution of the ATM Master Plan. In particular, my core responsibility is to manage the SESAR Development phase."
The organization will employ about 30 people, supported for program management by another 20 people from Eurocontrol. Ky estimated that the work program it will oversee, including both operational and technical work packages, will employ 2,000 to 3,000 people.
"We are going to be a very small entity," he said. "We want to be a delivery-oriented program. We want to be able to show to the passengers, to the citizens, that SESAR is about implementing change. We want to be in a position to show that every year, or every two years, we can demonstrate and we can propose something for implementation." — Bill Carey