Eurocontrol: U.S. ATM System Outperforms Europe's

 - December 16, 2013, 10:40 AM
Controllers man their stations at the Eurocontrol Maastricht Upper Area Control Center. (Photo: Eurocontrol)

The U.S. air traffic management (ATM) system outperforms Europe’s more fragmented system on both cost and operations, according to two reports issued by the Eurocontrol Performance Review Commission (PRC).

While similar in size and areas of traffic density, the two ATM systems differ in terms of organization and have regulatory, economic, cultural and operational variances that affect any performance comparison, the PRC notes. Europe uses 37 air navigation service providers (ANSPs) overseeing 63 area control centers and 260 approach control units. The U.S. employs one ANSP–the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO)–overseeing 20 air route traffic control centers and 162 terminal radar approach control facilities.

One of the two reports the Brussels-based PRC issued in November, “Comparison of Air Traffic Management-Related Operational Performance: U.S./Europe,” is a joint publication of Eurocontrol and the FAA ATO. It compares ATM operational performance between the U.S. and Europe, limited to continental airspace, through 2012.

According to the report, the U.S. controls 59 percent more flights operating under instrument flight rules with fewer controllers and facilities. The U.S. system employed 23 percent fewer controllers, or 10 percent less when counting “developmental” controllers in training.

Both sides experienced declining air traffic in the most recent four-year period. After growing by 14 percent between 2004 and 2008, European air traffic declined by 5.3 percent between 2008 and 2012 as a consequence of the global economic recession. Air traffic in the U.S. declined by nearly 16 percent between 2004 and 2012.

The U.S. and European ATM systems performed roughly the same in terms of on-time performance in 2012, each delivering about 83 percent of flights within 15 minutes of published airline schedules, according to Eurocontrol.

A second report compares air navigation services (ANS) cost-efficiency trends between 2002 and 2011. It concentrates on the costs of providing navigation services and not on how they get funded, which differs on both sides of the Atlantic. Route and terminal charges paid by airspace users primarily fund European ANSPs; the FAA derives money from the airport and airways trust fund and congressional appropriations.

The report found that FAA ATO unit costs–a measure of cost per flight hour–were 34 percent lower than for European states in 2011. “Drivers” contributing to that cost gap included cost per fight-hour for air traffic controllers in operations employment, estimated at 52 percent lower in the U.S. In terms of output, controllers in the U.S. handled 64 percent more flight hours than their average European counterparts.

The report “confirms that the observed gap in cost-efficiency performance arises from considerably higher productivity and lower support costs in the U.S. compared to Europe,” the PRC states. “Air traffic controllers in the U.S. have higher annual working hours and more flexible working arrangements, which allow the U.S. ATO to accommodate changes in demand more easily than European ANSPs.”