Economic woes risk crippling Europe’s rollout schedule of a revolutionary system that could transform regional air travel because airlines are simply too wary to invest at a time of low growth.
Europe has now spent millions in developing a blueprint for a nigh-on perfect system with which to manage an eventual albeit belated explosion in the number of aircraft traveling through its congested skies.
The modernization effort termed Sesar (Single European Sky ATM Research) was designed to help Europe deliver technologies and procedures that would be capable of tripling current capacity while improving safety by a factor of 10, reducing by 50 percent airline costs and reducing air transport’s impact on the environment by 10 percent per flight. Cumulative impact on European gross domestic product is pegged at €419 billion; 328,000 jobs created and 50 million tons of CO2 saved.
And yet the huge €30 billion price tag that comes with Sesar is overshadowing any promised future benefits.
The European Commission in Brussels, which has masterminded the technology blueprint as part of its wider Single European Sky project, acknowledges that all now depends on industry’s ability to “move forward with deployment in a timely and synchronized way,” or, put another way, to pay for it all.
Sesar’s program chiefs were last year asked to head a steering group of airlines, airports and air navigation service providers to determine what would be feasible in the first rollout phase not only in terms of advanced technologies ready for implementing but also in terms of what airspace users could afford.
The result has disappointed Sesar technologists principally from the avionics manufacturing community. The focus will be squarely placed on bringing the ground infrastructure up to scratch with some industry observers branding this a distinctly lackluster response from an airline community determined to “extract the most cost-beneficial bang from its retrofit buck,” as one source described it.
In essence, that means that during the first years of deployment at least, there will be none of the ambitious systemwide 4-D trajectory flight operations that depend on a high level of avionics equipage within the European fleet.
And, as for Europe’s air traffic control agencies, traffic levels are so low they argue they simply can’t be expected to make air travel cheaper at such a challenging time. Even those managing flights across some of Europe’s busiest skies protest they cannot be asked to subsidize Single Sky ambitions with dwindling revenues when they have costly networks to run.
Unbowed, Brussels is intent on reducing the costs of traveling through European airspace. European Commission vice president Siim Kallas, responsible for transport, has said fresh cost-cutting efforts are in the pipeline to help establish new “realistic and ambitious” targets to once again kick-start the Single Sky into reality.
Already there is unrest in the ranks. The European Transport Workers’ Federation has said its air traffic management membership will mobilize for a day of action in June to demand a return to the “fair, cooperative and social” Single European Sky to which it originally signed up.