Paris Air Show

Paris 2011: Traffic rebound drives SES as nations drag their feet

 - June 21, 2011, 7:00 AM

The global economic recession gave pause to the relentless growth in air traffic over recent years, not least in Europe. But according to Eurocontrol air transport activity, traffic is on the move again, with last summer’s 5-percent increase confirming the recovery of the industry.

Current predictions are for a doubling of 2009 levels by 2030, ­amounting to around 16.9 million movements per year. “Everyone knows that the current air traffic management system cannot cope with such an increase,” said Patrick Ky, executive director of the €2.1 billion ($2.9 billion) SESAR program, which is the research arm of the huge Single European Sky (SES) development effort.

So this is a timely moment, perhaps, for the latest move by the multi-national SESAR Joint Undertaking (JU) running the program. In March the JU revealed that SESAR is set to begin producing its first concrete “deliverables” this year (see box).

Fabulous FABs

While the SES effort appears to be making good progress, with no perceived technical or financial issues, it remains subject to institutional and organizational challenges so typical of many such large-scale European programs. Later this year a report is due on the all-important establishment of functional airspace blocks (FABs), the multi-national chunks of airspace designed to minimize the fragmentation that has always plagued efforts to rationalize European ATM.

FABs are seen as a critical element of an efficient European air traffic system, but according to Bo Redeborn, Eurocontrol’s principal director of ATM, “significant issues” remain. “It’s not going very well. We put a lot of effort into creating the nine functional airspace areas, but when it comes to the crunch, national service providers and governments are not prepared to give up their national airspace to create them,” he commented.

As a result, the most basic requirement of FABs–the need for countries to yield sovereignty over their airspace–remains stuck in bureaucratic mire and threatens to delay the entire SES project. “The philosophy is great,” said Redeborn, “but at committee level we don’t see much progress. I can’t see delivery on FABs being on time to meet the December 2011 deadline.”

Under pressure to move things forward, the European Commission appointed a special FAB coordinator in July 2010 charged with banging heads together to get states to agree on the necessary measures. “We have to have FABs, but we need to make a final push,” added Redeborn.

Managing the System

Meanwhile, on another front, a major SES milestone is finally in the cards. Member states have agreed to give Eurocontrol overall responsibility for network management of the SES system. This vital task, which Redeborn said will “introduce a new chapter in European aviation,” will effectively give the agency legal powers to manage the ATM network, and even to “name, shame and blame” underperforming service providers. The system will work on the basis of key performance indicators in the areas of safety, environment, capacity and cost efficiency and will work through the existing Eurocontrol Performance Review Commission, which will have the right to make changes to improve the network without having to seek member states’ approval.

In practice, Eurocontrol will have to be sensitive as to how it carries out the network management job, but there is no doubt that it is the only organization anywhere near capable of doing so. Redeborn applauds the move, but pointed out that it also places the agency on the firing line if things go wrong. “The really difficult issues we will face are not technical but social,” he said. In the future, SES air traffic controller strikes, for example, will be less effective because the system will be easily able to re-route aircraft around the strike area, but this could serve only to inflame the strike situation.

In some ways, elements of the SES are already arriving, almost by default. “There has been a lot of progress with shortening routes, harmonizing frequencies and combining support functions,” said Redeborn. “All service providers are safety-certified and there is a common European position in international forums.” 

On the air traffic management (ATM) navigation side, pilots are now given continuous descent approaches into many airport terminal areas and continuous climb departures to upper airspace, helping to ease delays due to overcrowding.

Deployment Phase

At a May 25 hearing of the European Parliament’s transport committee, SESAR executive director Ky reported that the European Commission is currently working on a proposal for the deployment phase of SESAR. In this regard, he told the politicians that it is essential to have “one single authority that is fully accountable for the program and can make decisions where individual stakeholders groups are unable to reach agreement.” He added that it is equally important from an international standpoint that the U.S., China, Brazil and other leading states have a single interlocutor in front of them to discuss and negotiate on standards and timelines.

In Ky’s opinion, another requirement for successful deployment is to make the new “aviation intranet”–SWIM (system-wide information management)–work. “In practice, this integration is extremely complex because it creates dependencies between investments of stakeholders groups that can have diverging interests,” he told the committee.

An example of this dilemma is the need to replace VHF radio (essentially 1950s’ technology) with digital communication. In this respect, said Ky, VHF cannot be put to one side until all flying aircraft are digitally equipped. “The airlines are therefore looking at each other, waiting for the other to invest because the more aircraft that are equipped, the cheaper it becomes,” he explained. “On the ground, air navigation service providers do not want to equip until a minimum number of aircraft are equipped. The result is a stalemate.”

Ky supports incentives to early movers, which he said can be available through operational benefits or financial benefits. “On the operational benefits, we are currently working on the notion of ‘Best equipped, Best served,’ which will help, but this faces a lot of resistance in particular from operators,” he explained. “On the financial incentives, we are currently looking at different types of financial instruments, such as project bonds and airlines equipage funds, that could be used to at least initiate the change process.

“The vast majority of SESAR investments are going to be made by industry, but I believe public money can serve as a seed that will leverage private investments into the successful and timely deployment of new technologies,” he concluded. “This leverage power will be even stronger if it is consistent with public policies and can be backed by public guarantees.”

There is still a long way to go before the full benefits of the SES become apparent. Some of the obstacles seem insurmountable–shortages of European runways, difficulties with releasing airspace reserved for the military and strike action by air traffic controllers being only a few. In the end, however, the same pressures that gave rise to the original need for the SES–accommodating a huge growth in traffic without creating unacceptable delays–likely will force politicians to see through the necessary measures. The SES will come; it is just a matter of when.