Farnborough Air Show

Volcanic disruption boosts case for SES

 - July 16, 2010, 11:35 PM

The total closure of European skies in April because of the volcanic ash cloud was considered by many observers to be an unnecessarily severe reaction. More than 100,000 flights were cancelled and, according to the Association of European Airlines, the airlines clocked up losses of at least $1 billion. But there was one very positive outcome, which was that the chaos underscored the urgency of the need for the Single European Sky (SES), a fact readily admitted by Eurocontrol, which bore the lion’s share of the airspace management challenge during the ash cloud crisis.

The unified, pan-European air traffic management (ATM) environment heralded in the SES would have considerably simplified the task of directing traffic around the system, providing more flexibility to open and close airspace sectors as required. Instead, the old, fragmented system of national airspace areas prevailed, delaying the measures necessary to solve problems as they occurred.

This year is the most critical for the SES since its official launch in November 2000 because by the close of 2010 a number of key elements must be in place if the system is to be up and running by the December 2012 initial implementation date. While the general view is that most of the key drivers are on the right path, there is significant concern from the airlines that there still is not enough urgency behind ensuring that the overall performance of the system meets expectations.

Three major activities are under way: establishment of a European Union-wide protocol setting performance targets for the ATM system, development of a new ATM charging system and deciding which organization will be responsible for managing the SES network–a crucial task.

While improving European ATM performance is the reason for the SES, getting there requires unanimous agreement among all European Union member states, a process that demands considerable diplomacy by those trying to push through the measures needed. “It’s moving along at a reasonable pace,” said Jeff Poole, director of industry charges and taxation with the International Air Transport Association and one of the airline champions of the SES, “but we are concerned that the system won’t deliver adequate performance if some very important issues aren’t resolved.”

The end of this year  air navigation service providers are to have completed their reports outlining how they intend to meet the SES performance targets. In October 2011, the European Commission will assess them for consistency–potentially a rocky process that will come up for review in two reference periods: 2012-14 and 2015-19.

The way SES performance is to be measured is based on the idea of key performance indicators (KPIs). Four areas have been identified: safety, the environment, capacity and cost efficiency.

The Safety KPI will concentrate on the maturity of safety culture within member states, including the all-important application of a “Just Culture”–an “honest” approach to accident and incident reporting that does not carry any threat of punishment. Environmental performance will cover enroute flight efficiency and monitoring of how civil and military airspace is being shared, while the capacity KPI will deal with delays and monitoring of airport data such as taxiing issues and arrival/departure sequencing. Finally, the cost-efficiency KPI will establish a unit rate for en-route air navigation services and will monitor airport charges.

Bo Redeborn, Eurocontrol’s director for cooperative network design, said the development of mandated performance targets “will, for the first time, give the Performance Review Commission the right to make changes to improve the network, where before a consensus was needed among all of the players.” He added that not only will this save time, “but it will give us a quicker response to changing requirements.”

According to Redeborn, there is little doubt that Eurocontrol will be the network manager “because it is the least risky approach,” but he added that there will be a need to balance member states’ considerations. “We need unanimous acceptance that Eurocontrol will play this role. If we can achieve that we’ll be looking at a new chapter in the history of European aviation because it will provide a new baseline for cooperation between the European Commission, European Aviation Safety Agency and Eurocontrol,” he told AIN.

Manager’s Role
Poole said he is happy about the choice of Eurocontrol as network manager, but added that it is “essential that the role of the manager is clear and that Eurocontrol meets its requirements, not the other way around.” Questions of governance have to be settled. “It is as important to say what the manager cannot do as to say what it should do,” he added.

While the principles are already agreed, “the devil is in the detail,” said Redeborn. “We have to see what the final text contains.” The worst-case scenario is that the service provision and regulation functions will be insufficiently separated, leaving the network manager with too many conflicting tasks. “The airlines’ expectations are very high,” he said.

One of Poole’s main worries is the lack of progress toward the functional airspace blocks (FABs), a key element of the SES which, in the European Commission’s SES II package, are recognized as “drivers to performance and change of the ATM industrial landscape.” The EC has set a firm 2012 deadline for the FABs “so that they can play their roles as adequate vehicles to achieve performance improvement.”

Nine FABs have been created so far, which might seem a remarkable success given that only a few years ago there was only one–the Maastricht Upper Area Control Center. “I remain concerned that the FABs at present are little more than cozy gentlemen’s clubs of ANSPs that are not focused enough on performance improvement,” cautioned Poole. While they may be defined, “we’re still not really seeing a commitment to significant restructuring and reducing costs,” he said.

Pressure to nominate an FAB coordinator to drive the FAB process forward is growing. It will be an organization charged with visiting ANSPs and FABs, essentially to bang heads together.

The process received a boost in early June when the ANSPs of FAB Europe Central (FABEC: Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland) agreed to cooperate on air traffic controller training, the first move they had made toward genuine operational cooperation. Eventually the EC hopes to see further integration between the nine FABs, but for now the main aim is to ensure that they all work together to improve the overall system approach called for in the SES, which is where the concept of a network manager comes in.

Earlier this year, the EC’s air transport directorate published a report called “Towards a Roadmap to Implementation of the SES.” This leaves no doubt about
the mammoth task still facing SES implementation.

Equally, there is no doubt about the outcome, however. The EC has made sure that the whole process is backed up by regulations that set firm dates for necessary actions to be taken. Within two years many of those actions will have become reality and the SES will be closer than ever to achieving the once-impossible goal of unifying the European ATM system.