European ‘single sky’ plan gains momentum

 - March 15, 2007, 7:30 AM

Launched in 1999 by European Commission vice president Loyola de Palacio, the move to create a single European sky (SES) for air traffic management and control appears to have gathered the institutional momentum needed to turn the concept into a reality.

The ambitious program was a response to air-traffic delays in European airspace that had grown through the 1990s to reach an average of 20 minutes per flight that year, partly as a result of restrictions stemming from the conflict in Kosovo. The plan sought to eliminate the national airspace boundaries that not only inhibit efficient airspace sectoring but foster variations in regulations and systems.

Ben Van Houtte, head of the European Commission’s air traffic management and airports unit, said in London at the end of June that the legislation was published in March and in force since April 20. Addressing a Royal Aeronautical Society conference on the operational and technical imperatives of the SES, Van Houtte said redrawing Europe’s ATC map on the basis of functional blocks of airspace would provide
a 30-percent increase in capacity even without additional efficiencies to be gained from standardization of equipment and procedures.

The EC will be in charge of implementation, with responsibility for developing more detailed rules and proposing them for adoption. “The novelty of the approach is the working method of the EC,” Van Houtte said. “We are not technical experts, but we can introduce processes and mechanisms that make it easier to make the right decisions.”

EC To Seek Industry Input
A single sky committee including civil and military representatives of the member states–“the body we have to persuade that our proposals are right,” as Van Houtte described it–will advise the EC and approve its proposals, but will not be responsible for implementation. There is also an industry consultative body, included at the urging of the European Parliament, which does not make decisions but can issue requests.

The EC will rely on Eurocontrol for technical expertise, issuing mandates to task the organization with technical developments and rule drafting. Van Houtte described this as one of the main achievements of the single sky process. Switzerland and Norway, and hopefully Iceland and Romania later, will be involved alongside the 25 EU member states, and “I hope that countries all the way to Ukraine will be able to follow the same approach,” he said.

The EC is not represented in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), but Van Houtte said it wants to be able to work with its member states in ICAO so that the single sky can be developed in an ICAO framework and “serve as an example for other parts of the world struggling with the same problems.”

To create the functional blocks of airspace that are intended to replace the present state-oriented flight information regions, Van Houtte said, the EC wants to follow a bottom-up approach. That means the initiative will have to come from the service providers, but the legislation also obliges member states to move in this direction.
“They are not bound to establish functional blocks in a particular way at a certain moment, but they have to do the preliminary work,” Van Houtte explained. The European Parliament had expressed concerns that some states would simply say they did not want to do it, “so if there is no result after five years the Commission will impose it top down.”

Last December the EC and Eurocontrol signed a memorandum of cooperation covering SES implementation and related activities, including global satellite navigation systems. Bernard Miaillier, head of European ATM system and convergence for Eurocontrol, said that while such technical and operational programs as RVSM and ACAS had been implemented without the SES, the new regime’s common regulation and enforcement power would hasten decision-making by replacing or complementing the previous process of consensus and unanimity.

Alexander ter Kuile, secretary general of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO), said the dip in traffic since 2001 and the resulting increases in the fees charged by air-navigation service providers (ANSPs) led him to “seriously question whether it is safe to continue with a system that basically divides the cost of provision by the number of flights.”

Moving to space-based ATM will mean the disappearance of national airspace boundaries, he said. And as responsibility for separation moves to the cockpit, ANSPs will be concerned mainly with capacity management. Eurocontrol should focus on regulatory support in the future, and discussion of the strategic direction of ATM should take place in the ICB.

One goal of the single sky is consolidation among ANSPs, ter Kuile said. Europe’s 57 ANSPs have 75 ATC centers and control 8.1 million movements annually in an area covering 2.36 million square miles. The U.S. and Canada, by contrast, have two providers, 29 control centers and 35,450 staff to handle 20 million movements in an area more than three times the size.

John Arscott, director of airspace policy for the UK Civil Aviation Authority, said single sky has to meet the needs of all users, including military, commercial and general aviation. And when interests conflict, it is the job of the regulator to decide who has priority.

Military traffic is declining, but the speed and maneuverability of new-generation combat aircraft, along with the need to protect their electronic signatures, means that for information training they need clear areas of about 120 square nautical miles.

Once the single sky starts to bite at lower altitudes, Arscott added, general aviation is likely to be faced with requirements for equipment such as mode-S transponders and VHF radios with 8.33-kHz channel spacing.

Vincent de Vroey, general manager of operations and ATM with the Association of European Airlines, said the airlines paid $6.56 billion (b5.34 billion) in en route charges last year. The annual cost of delays, meanwhile, is approximately $7 billion (b5.7 billion). The CANSO figures showed a 50-percent shortfall in the performance of European ATC, even compared with a U.S. system that is regarded as not very efficient and has been heavily criticized by the airlines.

Aircraft communication, navigation and surveillance systems often are not used to their full extent and sometimes do not even pay for themselves, de Vroey said. What the airlines want is a new gate-to-gate operational concept using aircraft trajectory information.

Van Houtte said the introduction of new technology is one of the main longer-term goals of the single sky. “We want to plan through 2020 with a definition of three moments when we can move from one technology to another. That will enable us to create service-provider and airline obligations so we can escape the absurd game of waiting to see who moves first.”

That is the objective of the SESAM program initiated by the Air Traffic Alliance, the economic interest group that EADS, Airbus and Thales formed last year. The group’s Lionnel Wonneberger said at a Eurocontrol ATM R&D symposium in June that ATA is working on a three-phase European master plan that would see the fruits of existing programs industrialized by 2007 ahead of implementation by 2010. Two follow-on phases would repeat the cycle at five-year intervals.

The alliance has already agreed to work jointly with Boeing’s ATM organization. Early this year ATA joined forces with Airservices Australia and Qantas to carry out a trial of tailored arrival routes, involving the uplink of area navigation route clearances–15 minutes before the top of descent–to Qantas A330s and 747-400s arriving at Melbourne and Brisbane. Wonneberger said required times of arrival were being met with an accuracy of 10 to 20 seconds.