Maastricht ATC Conference 2006: Europe looks to single-sky future

 - September 21, 2006, 4:39 AM

Last November saw the signature in Brussels of a contract covering the definition phase of the single European sky (SES) implementation program (Sesar, formerly known as Sesame).

Parties to the contract were the European Commission, Eurocontrol and the Air Traffic Alliance, a consortium formed by EADS, Airbus and Thales. The Air Traffic Alliance represents a 30-member consortium that includes four of Europe’s biggest airlines, six of its principal airport operators, nine of the major air navigation service providers (ANSPs), the seven main industrial concerns and the four major European and global associations representing airspace users.

The two-year definition phase is intended to develop a master plan for European air traffic management (ATM) by the year 2020. Funded to the tune of €30 million ($36 million) by the EC, it is due to be followed by a development and implementation phase that is expected to attract much more substantial research funding and lead to the deployment of systems to support the new ATM regime.

At the same time, the SES legislation enacted by the European Union envisions a radical restructuring of European airspace in which flight information regions based primarily on national borders will be replaced by functional airspace blocks designed primarily for efficiency.

Given that background, it was inevitable that Sesar and the SES would be the main focus of the year’s biggest gathering of the ATM industry, the ATC Maastricht exhibition and the parallel Jane’s conference in February. But it should not be the only driver of change, suggested Eamonn Brennan, chief executive of the Irish Aviation Authority.

“There is a presumption in the ANSP community that you can’t criticize the single European sky,” Brennan told the conference. “It’s like saying you’re against safety. But it may not be all it’s cracked up to be.” One of the main drivers, he said, is the changing business background, with the growth of low-cost airlines and the established carriers’ formation of global alliances. Yet while aircraft product lines are pretty much standardized, each ANSP tends to develop its own combination of equipment and procedures.

Simmering in the background was what might be the most contentious aspect of the process–the fact that reducing the number of flight information regions in Europe is bound to render redundant many of the existing area control centers and the ANSPs that run them. “Who is going to be the first ANSP CEO to stand up and say, ‘I’m happy to close my en route centre?’” Brennan wondered. “And which is the first government that’s going to let its ANSP do that?”

Brennan believes that the number of European ANSPs will be reduced eventually to just six. And if ANSPs have to consolidate, he concluded, so should their regulators.

ATM Efficiency

The Association of European Airlines (AEA) started lobbying for a single sky for Europe in 1989, when Giovanni Bisignani, currently CEO and director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), chaired the AEA in his capacity as president of Alitalia. Günter Martis, the AEA’s general manager of technical and operations, quoted estimates that the €6.7 billion ($8 billion) his members paid the ANSPs in 2004 could be reduced by as much as €3.8 billion ($4.6 billion) through airspace harmonization.

In the meantime, he wondered, “How many kilos of hardware and kilobytes of software are we transporting every day that are not used in the way they could be?” Whatever the precise quantity, the equipment and its associated software took a long time to get there. And as Philip Clinch, director of aircraft cockpit communications with SITA, pointed out, “We can’t wait to see what Sesar produces. We need to prepare now or it will be too late.”

The Sesar documentation does not make it clear where development stops and implementation starts, Clinch said. The original EC specification gave 2014 as the start date for implementation, “but if we don’t start now it will be too late to get aircraft equipped,” he added.

Pointing to the protracted period it has taken to implement fundamental tools such as controller pilot datalink communications and mode-S extended squitter, he said of equipping the fleet with new communications, navigation and surveillance avionics: “There is a temptation to be technology independent, but that is a risky approach because a technology-independent system is unlikely to be compatible with any real technology. And doing new technology is very expensive. Vendors won’t invest unless they can see a requirement, and aircraft manufacturers won’t install anything.”

A much more realistic option, he proposed, would be to build on the capabilities of existing systems and “base ATM on technologies that will realistically be there. Starting all over again is not a realistic option.”

The International Civil Aviation Organization’s 2003 Air Navigation Conference– the first since 1991–agreed that future communications should be based on CPDLC over the VHF digital link Mode 2 and automatic dependent surveillance should be based on mode-S extended squitter. He recalled: “IATA supported it, we supported IATA, and we were very pleased that there was a conclusion. Given that the ANC meets only every 12 years, if we get a decision we should stick to it.”

There are fewer than 10,000 aircraft equipped with Acars, and fewer than 3,000 in Europe. “When avionics manufacturers are looking at what to develop, they won’t design 10 different units for 3,000 aircraft,” he said. Meanwhile, airlines are already equipping their passenger cabins with in-flight Internet, mobile phones on board are on the way and Intel is preparing to add the 50-mile-radius WiMax to its chips. They are likely to be used for downloading flight data, and ATC should be looking at them, Clinch suggested.

There are ways of securing data transmitted over unsecure networks, and in the future the only service that might need a dedicated network is VHF voice. “Routine stuff will be data, and VHF voice will be used much less but in a much more urgent setting when it is used, because it will probably be an emergency,” Clinch added.

Network centricity may be the flavor of the month, he concluded, but “the future system should be aircraft centric.”