Paris Air Show

Europe strengthens commitment to Single European Sky program

 - June 9, 2009, 6:36 AM

At the end of March the troubled Single European Sky (SES) program received a vital boost when the European Parliament gave the project the legislative teeth it needed for the unified air traffic management (ATM) system enshrined in the SES package to be realized. The same week also saw the European Council endorse the all-important SESAR technology program which underpins the SES.

A package of regulations has now been agreed to that will not only push the SES forward but will also provide for numerous improvements in other aviation sectors as well. The actions are expected to leave the European aviation sector in far better shape to face the expected resumption of growth once the present crisis is over.
The SES program, one of the most complex technology cooperations ever undertaken, has been rebranded SES II and is now structured around four main pillars:

• Enhancements to the original SES legislation, including binding performance targets for Europe’s air navigation service providers to ensure convergence among national ATM systems, and definitive dates for Eurocontrol member states to improve performance;

• Use of the best available technology, based on the SESAR effort; 

• Safety–providing increased responsibility to the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which will receive new powers giving it comprehensive control over European aviation safety;

• Airport capacity to tackle the chronic shortage of runways and airport facilities, which threatens to cause a bottleneck to the entire SES program.

The European Parliament’s political support for SES II was immediately welcomed by the European Commission, which proposed the revised package last year. “For the first time, the needs of airspace users have been put at the core of the [SES] system,” said EC transport vice president Antonio Tajani. “The package could not have come at a more opportune moment, when the sector is in difficulty due to the present crisis.”

Until now SES progress has been, at best, slow; at worst, stalled altogether. “The SES has not delivered the expected results in important areas,” said the European Commission when it launched the new package in June 2008. “The process of integration within functional airspace blocks, regardless of national borders, has encountered numerous hurdles.” Member states have also “not taken steps to improve cost efficiency,” and perhaps more significantly, “hardly any progress is evident in the overall efficiency in the design and use of the European air network.”

Notwithstanding the problems, the Commission pointed to a number of achievements in the European ATM scene since the original SES was launched in 2000, especially the launch of the European Aviation Safety Agency in 2002, following which it has taken over the preparation and implementation of safety regulation throughout the European Union. Now the agency has been charged with the enormous task of establishing harmonized rules on air traffic management and air navigation services, without which the SES could not happen.

Eurocontrol has been at the core of SES development from the beginning, and before that had implemented many significant reforms to European ATM, including the introduction of reduced vertical separation minimums in 2002, which increased airspace capacity by 14 percent and reduced delays by 40 percent.

According to Bo Redeborn, director of cooperative network design at Eurocontrol and previously director for ATM strategies, the launch of SES II is the “beginning of the end” of the complex process of bringing European member states under a single ATM umbrella. He pointed to the boost given to the SESAR program by the European Council of Ministers’ endorsement of the ATM master plan, whereby 15 industrial consortia have been formed under the ?2 billion joint undertaking partnership, which includes Eurocontrol and the European Commission. “It is a new type of partnership that is designed so legacy ATM providers will be shifted out of their comfort zones from where they have inhibited progress on ATM research,” said Redeborn. “A lot of good research never reached maturity as a result.”

Now the entire SES program is subject to a regulatory process that relies on performance, linked to penalties if targets are not met. “It now focuses less on the performance of individual states and more on regional networks achieving harmonization of procedures,” added Redeborn.

One of the most fundamental SES elements about which there have been major problems is the development of functional airspace blocks (FABs), which replace national airspace boundaries with areas of seamless airspace designed for route efficiency. Without legislative teeth to force ANSPs to give up their precious national airspace boundaries, the entire SES program was threatened. Redeborn had previously described the FAB problem as “very, very difficult” to solve.

Under SES II the implementation of FABs will be mandated, with states required to form airspace blocks by the end of 2012 at the latest. Many having predicted the EC’s legislative moves have already identified their partners and some have even agreed to form FABs. In June 2008 the UK and Ireland announced they would form one, and five months later, six states–Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland– and seven air navigation service providers agreed to create the Functional Airspace Block Europe Central in the core area
of Europe.

Other FABs under development will unify the airspaces of Italy, Malta and Cyprus; Austria, Boznia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia; Spain and Portugal; and Romania and Bulgaria. 

Redeborn said he believes the major political hurdles for the creation of the SES “have now been achieved.” As for SESAR, he added that while there are “no real technical issues that can’t be overcome,” a huge amount of “very challenging” work remains, including common protocols for four-dimensional trajectory management, medium-term conflict detection, flight planning and aircraft performance issues and high-speed data exchange.

The aims of SESAR are impressive: to increase safety levels by a factor of 10 in a system that will be called upon to handle three times the traffic at half the cost per flight. The commission points to the North American ATM system, which today manages double the number of flights from 20 air traffic control centers, while Europe needs 60 centers to do the same job.

The hope is that with just 10, or fewer, centers managing the future European airspace–already one of the busiest in the world–the SES will push ATM efficiency in the region beyond even that.