Like their U.S. counterparts, European nations are engaged in an intense airspace modernization initiative aimed at bringing operational efficiencies, cleaner skies and financial benefits to operators. The technological and regulatory challenges are many, but with passenger traffic projected to rise, operators around the globe are eager to see benefits of the new systems.
Europe’s Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) and the United States’ Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) — and coming soon to Brazil and China — represent a “paradigm shift,” supported by state-of-the-art and innovative technologies to give each region, and eventually the globe, a high-performance air traffic control infrastructure, which will enable the safe and environmentally friendly development of air transport.
And, like NextGen in the United States, implementation of SESAR has been slow. “2012 is a make-or-break year for the Single European Sky and there is a lot at stake,” European Commission Vice President Siim Kallas said in November.
Driven by France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K., SESAR is seen as the operational and technological answer to the major challenges of European air traffic growth. Europe is rife with problems linked to its complex mosaic structure, a situation evened by the ever expanding European Union (EU). Presenting the world’s highest density of population on the smallest of the inhabited continents, Europe also has the most tightly packed and congested airspace existing today, a proof that the Old Continent — covering some 4 million square miles — is still one of the busiest places on the planet.
In the sky, Europe sees more than 26,000 flights a day criss-crossing the busy densely populated airspace, making air traffic management (ATM) even more complex and demanding. The number of flights is expected to increase 5 percent a year, according to the European Commission. Additionally, the continent’s centralized ATM system suffers from several inefficiencies, such as using air traffic control boundaries that follow national borders, and having large areas of European airspace reserved for military use when in fact they may not be needed.
“The Single Sky initiative is intended to organize airspace and air navigation at a European rather than at a local level,” said Luc Lallouette, SESAR program director at Thales. Thales leads three SESAR work packages, manages 40 associated projects, and contributes to 159 more.
“The main idea of a Single European Sky is to have an airspace route network that is based on traffic flows and not national boundaries,” said Razvan Bucuroiu, head of Eurocontrol’s Operations Planning Unit.
Airspace modernization initiatives, namely SESAR, could yield major financial and operational benefits to European operators, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). The fragmented European airspace costs the industry on two fronts — the underused avionics installed on most modern aircraft and the lack of harmonization between airspace blocks. European air traffic control costs are about $1,050 a flight compared with near $600 in the United States. According to IATA, of the $17.7 billion paid by airlines to European air traffic control each year, about $4 billion is wasted in inefficiency. On average a flight is 12 percent longer than it needs to be, IATA said.
“The world is becoming increasingly global,” said Kallas. “This is especially visible in the developments in air transport. We in the EU are convinced that working towards cross-border and global solutions is beneficial for everybody.”
SESAR is composed of three phases — the Definition Phase (2004-2008), which delivered the ATM master plan defining the content, the development and deployment plans of the next generation of ATM systems; the Development Phase (2008-2013), which will produce the required new generation of technological systems, components and operational procedures as defined in the SESAR ATM Master Plan and Work Program; and the Deployment Phase (2014-2020), which will see the large scale production and implementation of the new air traffic management infrastructure, composed of fully harmonized and interoperable components guaranteeing high performance air transport activities in Europe.
The SESAR Joint Undertaking (JU), formed in 2007, is the public-private partnership formed to manage the Development phase. Eurocontrol and the European Commission are founding members. Thales, Honeywell, Boeing and Airbus are among the industry participants.
Addressing a packed conference room in Amsterdam at the ATC Global conference in March, Patrick Ky, executive director of the SESAR JU, said the group “delivered what we expected to deliver” in 2011, beginning the process of updating the SESAR Master Plan, which aims to simplify and highlight 10 critical airspace changes needed to bring about operational benefits; and launching Airline Flight Operations and Weather Systems activities. In 2012, Eurocontrol will proceed with the second phase of its Release approach, an effort to validate technologies in an operational environment. Release 1 included 25 operational validations throughout Europe, centering on environmentally friendly terminal airspace operations, the initial 4-D trajectory and traffic synchronization. Twenty-five Release 2 exercises are planned for 2012, expanding the scope of the Release 1 work to create a more “coherent strategy, ensuring that the ATM Master Plan is properly addressed,” according to Eurocontrol. More specifically, Release 2 will focus on airport platform safety, airborne operations, ATC operations and network management.
In addition to operational and technological demonstrations, the industry needs to make more progress on solutions to the funding question. “Closing the business case is complicated,” Ky said in March. “You can’t make the business case using only one actor; all actors business cases depend on other actors.”
The total estimated cost of the Development Phase of SESAR is $2.77 billion, to be shared between the EC, Trans-European Transport Network Executive Agency (TENTEA), Eurocontrol and the industry $470 million each for the EC and TENTEA, $940 million for Eurocontrol and $940 million for the industry.
Given the nature and scope of the program the community contribution will come from Research and Trans-European Network funds. In 2007 the SESAR JU received an initial contribution of $13 million from the two founding members. The other members are required to pay a minimum initial contribution of $13 million within one year. This amount is reduced to $7 million for members that subscribe to the JU within 12 months of its constitution.
In November, progress reports published by the European Commission showed a large majority of member states at risk of not meeting critical targets for 2012. There are four key deliverables in 2012 — the performance scheme setting key air traffic management targets, set to start in early 2012; the nine functional airspace blocks, to be operational by the end of the year; the ATM network manager, which has already been designated as Eurocontrol; and the launch of the Deployment Phase of SESAR, moving from the research and development phase to the rollout of new equipment and technology. The performance report issued in November saw two major elements that are cause for serious concern — the functional airspace blocks and the performance scheme.
“There is a genuine risk that we will lag behind and find ourselves unable to satisfy the rising demands of air travel, which is set to nearly double by 2030,” Kallas said.
Functional airspace blocks (FAB) refer to reducing the number of the portions of airspace already in place in Europe (67) and to replace them by nine functional airspace blocks by 2012 as way to reduce airspace fragmentation and to ensure national airspace boundaries do not reduce the efficiency of air traffic flows. The European Commission used a “traffic light” assessment system ranging from “green” representing no concern to “red” representing a lot of concern. Eight of the nine FABs are were ranked as orange or red, prompting the Commission to urge Member States to step up their actions. (The Danish/Swedish FAB was characterized by yellow.) “Failure to make measures at a national level could oblige the Commission to re-open the SES legislative packages to introduce a more radical solution,” the European Commission said in a statement.
The performance scheme refers to reducing delays and improving financial efficiency. In the report, only five out of 27 Member States got a “green light,” meaning they are on track to meet cost and capacity/delay targets for the 2012-2014 period.