The Single European Sky (SES), officially launched in 2004, is the single biggest air traffic management (ATM) initiative ever undertaken in Europe. Its main aim is to provide wholesale structural reform of a deeply fragmented regulatory framework to provide a seamless ATM system.
Given the scale of the initiative, and the fact that it involves nations relinquishing at least some control over their skies, achieving the SES goal was never going to be easy since it requires high-level political support to push through the necessary revision of national legal and economic measures.
Now, three years after its launch, the first major report on the SES, called Evaluation of the impact of the SES on ATM performance, has been released. The report was prepared for the European Commission (EC) by Eurocontrol’s respected performance review commission (PRC) and it presented a somewhat checkered story of progress to-date. EC vice president Jacques Barrot has concluded that while the report “proves we took the right initiative with the SES…we still have some way to go.”
The SES is heralded by the EC as essential for improving the efficiency of European airspace if the expected 5-percent annual growth in traffic is to be handled without increasing delays. The report revealed, however, that while the dream of a seamless ATM system persists, many aspects of the SES have advanced hardly at all since its implementation three years ago.
“There is no guarantee,” said the report’s authors, “that the SES in its current form will produce tangible performance improvements in respect of efficiency, and thus address effectively the key current issues in ATM.” Furthermore, they added, “the SES lacks overall impetus and incentives to performance improvement.”
For example, one of the most fundamental requirements of the SES is for the establishment of functional airspace blocks (FABs)–essentially large groupings of airspace controlled by a single air navigation single service provider.
FABs are regarded as vital to improve efficiency of the European ATM system, yet the report found that “the current initiatives on FABs are not providing evidence of likely performance improvements in terms of safety and efficiency.” It added that there is a “lack of clarity over the objectives and expectations for FABs.”
Lack of Commitment by States
In other words, individual member states are failing to achieve the political consensus needed to yield ATM ownership to a supra-national body. Indeed the report, which is based on interviews with national service providers and other ATM bodies, added that lack of progress might actually be because of a “lack of commitment” of member states.
In preparing the report, the review commission compared the current ATM situation in Europe against principal indicators: safety enhancement, improved ATM efficiency, optimization of capacity, minimization of delays and establishment of a harmonized regulatory framework. The commission admitted that while it is too soon to know the full impact of the SES, it is possible to identify areas of weakness in all of them, “which must be addressed at the early stage.”
One of the main goals of the SES is to ensure separation between national regulatory bodies and their ATM service providers, which the commission regards as “fundamental to ensuring effective regulation and avoiding conflicts of interest.” This highlights one of the main problems with the SES–trying to get individual states to sign up to the pan-national imperatives which are central to its success.
The commission has been forced to admit that “the most promising tools to improve performance…lie in the hands of the [member] states.” It added, however, that by its very nature this may lead to “potential inconsistencies in their application and prevent a genuine and effective common playing field.”
The performance review commission recommended that bringing the full weight of the EC rulemaking process on individual states that fail to measure up to the SES objectives should be used only as a last resort. Instead, it recommended the use of “minimum performance criteria” to measure progress.
“Only if actions are not successful and performance is not improving at the planned pace would consideration be given to further regulatory or nonregulatory action,” the report stated. In the longer term, however, “there may be a need for appropriate and progressive regulatory intervention at the European level.”
Lack of Transparency
On safety, the report reflected the continuing battle to get member states to provide transparent reporting of current and potential ATM problems. The commission itself had previously stated that the provision of safety-related information is “wholly inadequate” for safety management across Europe and, in the report, asks again for the development of common safety performance indicators across Europe “to drive an overall improvement in the level of air navigation system safety [ANS] performance.”
The commission found that there have been “significant improvements in ANS efficiency, especially concerning capacity and delays,” which it says are “close to target.” However, in a sentence that will ring true with the pilot community, the report found that “arrival/departure capacity is becoming scarce at major airports, and ATM planning and operations may affect air transport growth.”
ATM efficiency remains a major issue, however. The report admits that in 2004 almost twice the amount of traffic was controlled in the U.S. as in Europe– for the same cost. The report noted, however, that en-route unit costs in Europe are improving as a result of “genuine performance improvements.”
Flight efficiency remains a major issue, with the commission having found that en-route horizontal inefficiencies add an estimated ?1.4 billion ($1.8 billion) a year to the bottom line because of extra fuel burn and other operating costs. “The main driver,” said the report, “is the lack of optimized strategic design and use of airspace”–the very problem the SES is meant to solve.
Delays have improved significantly in the past three years, concluded the report, and have been reduced to the point where they are “optimum.” In other words, they cannot be further reduced without incurring disproportionate extra capacity costs.
While this may be good news for airspace users, the projections for the growth of European traffic, coupled with increasing airport and runway capacity problems, mean that the drive to create a more efficient airspace environment must continue. However, as the report pointed out, the SES “remains simply an enabling regulation for most elements and does not in itself drive improvement.”
At present, the commission admits it is too early to say whether member states will succeed in applying the SES regulations sufficiently to move the process forward. Its next report is to be presented in three years, by which time the likelihood of success should be much clearer.