ATM Modernization, Business & GA, Commercial

Has Europe Finally Subdued Its Summer Congestion Problem?

By David Jensen | August 1, 2000
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Right now, Europe is in that dreaded season–the holiday season, when air traffic is at its worst and delays in arrival and departure mount up. But this year, European air traffic management (ATM) authorities hope to have a leg up. Despite the anticipated record highs in air traffic, they formulated measures to actually drive the number and length of delays downward.

How successful are their plans? Well, perhaps the travelers currently flying into and around Europe can best give that answer. Nevertheless, a comprehensive, multifaceted plan has been implemented by Eurocontrol and Europe’s air traffic service providers. To outline the plan’s various facets, Avionics Magazine talks to George A. Paulson, Eurocontrol’s director of Safety, Airspace, Airports and Information Services. That title puts him in charge of developing and implementing safe airspace management and navigation solutions, which, in turn, gives him considerable responsibilities within the European Air Traffic Management Programme (EATM), including in navigation, mapping and charting, work practice standardization, and research and development.

Avionics Magazine: How much traffic growth do you anticipate this year over last year? And what growth rate do you project over coming years, say, a decade?

Paulson: This year we are anticipating traffic growth between 5% and 6% for Europe as a whole. Current European forecasts for the medium and long term indicate that air traffic will continue to grow at approximately the same rate per annum.

Avionics Magazine: What is your goal in terms of reducing the number of flight delays and/or length of delays during the summer 2000?

Paulson: Delays in the summer of 2000 are expected to be significantly lower than those experienced in 1999 in spite of the increase in traffic. The target average delay per flight is 3.5 minutes, assuming a 5.3% traffic growth.

Avionics Magazine: Eurocontrol’s Performance Review Committee (PRC) listed 10 ATM performance problems. Many of those involve deficiencies in management, planning and decision-making. How do you plan to combat such fundamental problem areas?

Paulson: The Performance Review Commission has indeed taken a critical look at the performance of the entire ATM system–air traffic service (ATS) providers, airports, airspace users and the Eurcontrol agency itself. One of its major tasks has been to examine capacity provision and delays.

The Eurocontrol agency is taking effective measures to tackle the various problems facing European ATM, and it is more and more looking, together with its partners, to new and innovative ways to cope with the congestion problem. It is addressing the issue by introducing short- and long-term projects which will bring the much-needed capacity.

Examples are the 8.33 KHz channel spacing program successfully introduced on Oct. 7, 1999. Another improvement to the route network was introduced on May 18, 2000 [see later] and RVSM [reduced vertical separation minima] will be implemented on Jan 24, 2001.

The delay situation remains a cause for concern. This is why new initiatives are continually being taken into consideration to address the situation.

A new capacity planning process is being implemented now. Capacity at critical airports is being progressed by the establishment [recently by Eurocontrol] of an airport capacity enhancement team.

The European Air Traffic Services Route Network is being constantly improved through the introduction of new route networks, which have contributed to airspace optimization in various parts of Europe. Better use of airspace is already being made through the Flexible Use of Airspace Concept, the development and implementation of which is progressing all over the European Civil Aviation Conference [ECAC] area.

Improvements in air traffic flow management [ATFM] also are being made–a major change being planned for 2001. An Enhanced Traffic Flow Management System [ETFMS] is being developed by our Central Flow Management Unit to ensure more rapid, more reliable decision-making through traffic load monitoring in real time. Once the ETFMS is up and running–which it should be by the year 2001–we will be able to make better use of available airspace faster, so optimizing ATFM traffic delivery and ATC service, leading to less delay and higher throughput of traffic.

At the same time, we’re making every effort to enhance the decision-making process with a view to facilitate the efficient and timely implementation of programs such as RVSM. For this purpose, we are currently introducing the Eurocontrol Notice of Proposed Rule-Making [ENPRM] along the lines of the one used in the United States. In this way, our partners will be able to see exactly what is required of them and have a contractual obligation to reach milestones and implement measures agreed in common.

Avionics Magazine: The PRC cited Greece as a major problem. How do you target and resolve problems within a specific region or country?

Paulson: Greece represents one of the most positive achievements of last year, as the more pressing problems of Greece’s ATC systems were sucessfully settled. In 1999, delays in Greece were resolved by 92% over 1998. This achievement was made possible by working in close coordination with all parties in Greece.

In order to help target problems, we rely on traffic/delay data coming from the Central Flow Management Unit (CFMU). We identify the troublespots and take urgent remedial action. In the short term, action is taken jointly by the CFMU and the air traffic service providers, and for the medium and long term, action is taken by my directorate in coordination with the members states’ directors of operations and senior military representatives.

Avionics Magazine: Regarding regions, there are high traffic areas, so-called "backbone" areas, which can create the bulk of the congestion/delay problem. What can be done to resolve this dilemma?

Paulson: This issue is being dealt with on several fronts. Firstly, it is part of our short- and medium-term capacity enhancement initiatives and is covered by the CFMU global plan for the next summer season.

Secondly, the European route network is constantly being optimized through successive new versions of the Area Route Network (ARN). In this connection, a major route network change was made without any hiccup on May 18 for the airspace over Germany and Switzerland as part of the rolling program for improvement.

In 1999, bottlenecks were identified in central and southern Europe. As a result, a task force was formed to address operational issues in this area. Known as the CHIEF, or Confoederatio Helvetica, Italia, España and France project, members of the task force, consisting of directors of operations and their military counterparts, are making changes to increase capacity. I’m confident that this initiative will provide between 10% to 15% extra capacity in this core area.

Avionics Magazine: Europe now has 69 area control centers. Would consolidation of these centers help combat the air congestion problem? And if so, how and by how much?

Paulson: The number of control centers per se is not perceived as the main problem. The prime issue is the coordination and interfacing between these centers. Our aim is to provide a seamless gate-to-gate service to aircraft operators so that, from the operators’ perception, the various centers operate as a single system.

This having been said, there are initiatives under way aimed at reducing the overall number of centers. The CEATS [Central European Air Traffic Services] project is a case in point. An ATC center will be based in Vienna and handle, as from 2006/2007, the upper airspace of eight Central and Eastern European states.

Avionics Magazine: Regarding ATC infrastructure, what equipment would be needed to significantly curb the congestion problem?

Paulson: Several projects are under way, all contributing to differing degrees, to ease controller workload and curb congestion. Air-ground data link, GNSS [Global Navigation Satellite System], RVSM, free routing are only a few examples of the many ongoing activities.

In any event, congestion cannot be curbed by ATC infrastructure improvements alone. These will almost always need to be associated with other measures such as the availability of radio frequencies, airborne equipment improvements, and/or staff increases and retraining.

Avionics Magazine: How would you measure the success of the EATCHIP program?

Paulson: The European ATC Harmonization and Integration Program has increased European ATC capacity by 50% over the last 10 years.

Avionics Magazine: And when do you envision complete integration of ATC in Europe?

Paulson: This question prompts another one: What is meant by "complete integration"? As previously stated, technical integration leading to a situation whereby aircraft operators perceive the service as being provided by a single system is on its way and will be attained in the timeframe covered by the ATM Strategy for the years 2000+, adopted in January 2000 by the ECAC Ministers of Transport.

Complete integration in the sense of the U.S. system with a single authority, identical equipment, and staff working conditions is not the means to provide safety, capacity enhancements, and ATM efficiency in Europe. We have different systems, but we are ensuring that these interoperate and provide high integrity and capacity.

At the same time, emphasis is on improving the European airspace design and making a more effective use of the available airspace. The main driver for European ATM system improvements is performance, which is measured by safety, capacity and delays. Safety is, has been, and will remain the prime consideration in aviation.

Avionics Magazine: What role(s) do you seek from the carriers to help abate congestion?

Paulson: We are aiming at enhancing cooperation with all our stakeholders. The airlines, in particular, will play an increasingly important role in the planning stages of new projects and programs. They are, and will be, more so in the future, a crucial element in ensuring timely airborne equippage or retrofits.

It is of prime importance that investments on the ground and in the air occur in unison so that all partners derive maximum benefit of the infrastructure improvements planned. This is seen as the major contribution by carriers to the resolution of the congestion problem.

Avionics Magazine: Do you plan to have periodic reviews by the PRC? If so, how often?

Paulson: The Performance Review Commission is an independent body established by the Eurocontrol Permanent Commission. It is to provide advice to ensure the effective management of the European air traffic management system through a strong, transparent and independent performance review and target-setting system.

In this connection, the PRC issues performance review reports on a yearly basis and, if required, it does so also on an ad-hoc basis. The third Performance Review Report covering the calendar year 1999 was published on May 25.

European Programs to Improve ATM

8.33 KHz channel spacing. The 25-KHz channel spacing in the VHF radio band cannot accommodate the demand for new frequencies. So channel spacing of radio frequencies reduced to 8.33 KHz was made mandatory in October 1999 for operations above FL245.

Confoederatio Helvetica, Italia, España and France (CHIEF) project. The areas currently causing the most problems in European airspace are southern France, northeast Spain, northern Italy and Switzerland. So Eurocontrol created a special task force to tackle operational problems in this area. The agency seeks short-term improvements in airspace management, civil-military cooperation, ATS route structure, sectorization and air traffic management (ATM) procedures.

Enhanced Traffic Flow Management System (ETFMS). The Central Flow Management Unit (CFMU) developed ETFMS to ensure more rapid, more reliable decision-making through traffic load monitoring in real time. Once the ETFMS is up and running, by 2002, the CFMU expects to gain a more accurate picture of the impact of intercontinental traffic, and thus, give more accurate slots to intra-European traffic. It also will allow better use of available airspace at a faster pace. This will optimize air traffic flow management (ATFM) traffic delivery and air traffic control (ATC) services, leading to fewer delays and higher traffic throughput.

Eurocontrol Notice of Proposed Rule-Making (ENPRM). The enhanced Eurocontrol regulatory process, relying on the ENPRM mechanism for rule-drafting and rule-setting, can help make rules that are binding on its contracting parties. As with the FAA’s NPRM, this mechanism will provide adequate notice for the introduction of new programs and projects and make the entire process more transparent.

European ATC Harmonization and Integration Program (EATCHIP). Launched in 1990, EATCHIP was designed to achieve harmonization by the end of 1998 of the existing national ATC systems and prepare for their subsequent integration. The aim was to help implement a uniform European ATM system. Over the past 10 years, EATCHIP contributed to a 40% increase in airspace capacity. Last year, EATCHIP was succeeded by the European ATM Program (EATMP), which supports the new strategy for European ATM, called ATM 2000+.

Flexible Use of Airspace (FUA) concept. The FUA concept was established to facilitate advancement towards an ECAC (European Civil Aviation Conference) airspace, which is considered a continuum in accordance with user needs regarding ATM services that are no longer constrained by national boundaries or exclusive use by a particular user group, be it civil or military.

Reduced Vertical Separation Minima (RVSM). RVSM will permit a 1,000-foot vertical separation minimum between suitably equipped aircraft in the levels FL290 to 410 (inclusive) as of Jan. 24, 2002. The results expected are significant ATC capacity gains and improved flight profile benefits. More information can be obtained from the RVSM program manager by calling (32) 2-729-3382, or visiting on the Web.

For more on Eurocontrol programs, visit

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