Maastricht conference highlights ATC hurdles

 - March 28, 2007, 6:07 AM

In the light of the European Union’s final go-ahead given to the “Single European Sky” (SES) initiative, speakers at the Jane’s ATC Maastricht Conference (see box) engaged in a lively debate about how to enhance air-traffic management performance.

Brought up in those debates was the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) claim that “Europe’s ATC cost per flight hour is 74 percent higher than in the U.S.” The Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO) further noted, “We are facing new challenges with the renewed growth in Europe and airlines [pressuring] air navigation service providers to maintain or lower their cost base.” Delta Air Lines complained of ATC bureaucracy on both sides of the Atlantic.

For both Thales and Rockwell Collins, the ATM paradigm must also evolve with the capabilities of the aircraft being integrated into the airspace system.

“Aircraft are no longer controlled from the ground but are an element of the flying network. The air and ground CNS systems have developed sophisticated but independent functionalities to respond to different goals and constraints,” pointed out Jean-Claude Richard, director of industrial partnerships for the Air Traffic Alliance, a joint venture among Thales, EADS and Airbus.

According to the ATM experts, there is clearly a need for a major cultural change, a radical transformation of the ATM landscape, as we know it today.

Eurocontrol: Better Results but No Complacency

Eurocontrol director general Victor Aguado said, “Traffic figures have never been so high–and yet delays are low.” In fact, a Eurocontrol analysis of 41 European countries showed that last year was the busiest on record, with just shy of 8.5 million flights, up 2.8 percent over 2002. At the same time, average air-traffic flow-management delay per flight decreased 20 percent from 2002, averaging 1.7 minutes per flight. Reduced delays last year cut delay costs to airlines by one-third, translating into $300 million in savings.

“We are fast approaching one of our major performance goals: to keep air-traffic flow-management delays down to an average of one minute per flight–the economic optimum,” noted Aguado.

Despite this good news, Aguado remained cautious about the future: “Historically, Europe has had a capacity gap. It took three years to provide the capacity needed three years before then. We seem to be catching up now, largely thanks to air navigation service providers’ efforts and pan-European programs such as RVSM. This program increased capacity in the upper airspace by 18 percent.”

Airport capacity is now seen as the next major constraining factor. “Right now, the top-ten airports generate 73 percent of airport delays. Improvements in flow management will bring about smoother coordination and adapted flight planning, paving the way for operators to fly user-preferred routes,” explained Aguado.

However, the Eurocontrol chief warned: “We did well last year. But traffic is growing again, and today’s core area is bound to spread eastward. We expect that this summer will be good from the delay point of view, if not as good as last year’s. But starting next year, the European ATM system will once again be under pressure, and delays could grow again. To keep pace with traffic growth, effective capacity will have to be increased by 5 percent each year.”

‘Single European Sky’ Is the Way Ahead

Single Sky is now at hand, explained the European Commission’s director of air transport directorate, Michel Ayral. “We have recently seen the conclusion of the Commission’s Single European Sky initiative. At the end of January, the European Parliament voted to approve the set of four regulations that comprise the Single Sky package. Early this month [February–Ed.] the Council of Ministers followed suit. This completed the legislative process that was initiated in late 2001 by the Commission’s proposals under the direction of [EC vice president of transport and energy] Loyola de Palacio.”

Ayral recalled, “In the beginning, many observers were skeptical that the European Union would succeed in this ambitious undertaking. We can take pride in the broad support that the Single European Sky now enjoys. This is a very significant development, as the Single Sky package actually reflects the willingness of member states to transfer wide decision-making powers to the European Union and to move beyond the traditional national perspective to air traffic management.”

He further explained that the Single European Sky is essentially a regulatory initiative: “It aims at completing the traditional engineering-inspired and consensus-driven approach that prevails in this industry, by a set of clear rules that define the rights but also the responsibilities of the different actors. The community legal framework facilitates enforcement not only vis-à-vis states but also as it concerns private parties. Where appropriate, a rigorous approach can be followed to enable, for example, synchronized equipage by different categories of airspace user and by service providers so that system-wide benefits can be achieved.”

While the EC retains the ultimate responsibility for the application of Single Sky, it will be implemented in close cooperation with all interested parties. The body created to implement the plan is the single sky committee, which is the interface between the EC and the member states. It is composed of civilian and military ATM experts from the soon to be 25 EU member states, and will also involve neighboring states–initially Switzerland, Norway and Iceland, perhaps followed later by more.

Eurocontrol is also part of this committee and will contribute its technical expertise and its pan-European perspective to ensure consistency of work within that organization.

The single sky committee met for the first time on February 9 under the chairmanship of the EC. At the inaugural meeting, it defined its rules of procedure and had a first exchange about the EC’s work program to implement Single Sky.

In addition, industry representatives will be able to contribute through the industry consultation body (ICB), which will be set up in the next few months. Eight major associations are expected to participate in this body, including the Airports Council International-Europe, Association of European Airlines, AECMA (European Association of Aerospace Industries), CANSO, European Business Aviation Association, European Regions Airline Association, International Air Carrier Association and International Air Transport Association. The ICB started work last month and plans on meeting at least once a month to discuss the direction and timetable of improvements to the European ATM system, notably for the introduction of new equipment and procedures.

The objectives of the EC’s proposals on creation of Single Sky are to increase ATC capacity, as necessitated by the annual growth rate of around 5 percent in traffic; improve safety; reduce ATC fragmentation; ensure closer integration of the military sector in organization of ATC and in rule-making; and smooth the way for the introduction of new technologies.

It has long been acknowledged that national boundaries are not necessarily the optimal basis for ATC. This implies the definition of a harmonized classification of airspace with a reduced number of airspace categories, in addition to harmonized rules on route and sector design. Overlooking national borders will make the entire process of airspace design and management much more straightforward and eventually create cross-border airspace structures.

As the EU adopts a more seamless airspace design, this should be recognized by the establishment of a single European upper information region and by the preparation of comprehensive aeronautical information to be managed and made accessible centrally.

To further reduce airspace fragmentation, the EC proposes to create “functional blocks of airspace,” extending beyond national frontiers. Member states will have to analyze the way in which air traffic is managed over their territories, including technical criteria such as traffic flows and cost-benefit analysis, and seek greater efficiency and integration, thereby reducing safety hazards.

“Over time we expect to see the creation of a number of cross-border functional airspace blocks, drawing on the experience of Maastricht, NUAC and CEATS,” said Ayral.

This will also have an effect on the ground by encouraging cooperation between ATC organizations. However, contrary to some trade-union concerns and fears, Single Sky has nothing to do with privatization of ATC, nor will it introduce competition between ATM services.

Nevertheless, it will be possible for air navigation service providers to operate across national borders.

A member state will be able to designate an organization in another member state to assume responsibility for ATC in its airspace. Together with the establishment of functional airspace blocks, this opens the door to integrated service providers operating over large areas. Likewise, for supporting services such as communication and meteorological information, service providers and airspace users will have the choice between providing these services in-house or procuring them from a supplier in any member state.

Cross-border service provision will also be supported by mobility of air traffic controllers. The EC has agreed to submit a proposal soon that will set out a mechanism for a common ATC organization curriculum, thereby consolidating training requirements and facilitating movement of controllers between centers and countries.

Ben Van Houtte, head of the EC transportation and energy division’s ATM unit, outlined this year’s primary objective as having the regulatory framework in place.

Writing the Rulebook

“The first priority is to set up all the necessary structures and instruments to prepare further initiatives,” he said. “The memorandum of cooperation with Eurocontrol was signed just before Christmas. It is the framework under which we can organize the contribution by Eurocontrol to the Single European Sky.”

Most of the work this year will focus on preparing the first set of rules, and priority will be given to four subjects:

•    The need for member states to set up national supervisory authorities and start issuing certificates to the service providers.

•    The creation of a new user-fee collector, which is “essential to stimulate cost-efficiency and provide for information disclosure and transparency.”

•    Airspace harmonization, to present a platform for better airspace design and management and for the establishment of functional blocks of airspace.

•    Flexible use of airspace, which will provide a framework for cooperation with the military and be a stepping-stone for other projects.

The EC is also drafting a regulation on certification and is preparing mandates to Eurocontrol on the three other subjects. These mandates should become effective this month. Eurocontrol is expected to complete the drafting and consultation process in October to allow the adoption of new regulations before the end of the year.

In addition, the EC hopes to be able to use existing financial instruments, notably the trans-European network budget, to support a number of Single Sky initiatives. “We would in particular consider feasibility studies for functional airspace blocks. In addition, we expect to launch a major definition study to prepare the longer-term evolution of the ATM infrastructure in accordance with the EC’s strategic research agenda,” noted Van Houtte.

In the equipment area, the EC expects to issue a number of mandates focusing on flight-data processing, with a view to implementing rules next year. Further subjects should be identified with the help of the industry consultation body.

In the longer term, the EC will have to work on the other issues identified in the legislation, notably aeronautical information and flow management. A study is also under way to assess the future funding needs of ATM, especially to review the need for a mechanism to complement cost recovery. “Such a funding mechanism could help to ensure the continuity of service provision in difficult times, to assist adjustments by the air traffic management industry to the Single Sky, notably for airspace users that remain outside the charging scheme, and to support the deployment of new technologies,” explained Van Houtte.

“Finally, as the Single European Sky matures, we will need to assume our responsibilities in the international area. A framework for cooperation with the main international partners will be necessary to coordinate research efforts, as well as to ensure commonality of new technologies and worldwide interoperability. We will discuss with authorities and manufacturers in the U.S. and other third countries to organize the global acceptance of satellite navigation and datalink technologies into the ATM system,” he concluded in his overview of this ambitious but aggressive Single Sky agenda.

Consolidation through Cooperation?

According to CANSO secretary general Alexander ter Kuile, if Single Sky will do the same for the region’s ATM that the Euro single currency did for the European economy, then the airspace redesign will take years.

More fundamentally, as illustrated by the new FAA’s corporate structure including a customer-oriented, performance-based Air Traffic Organization (ATO), this infrastructure change implies a major cultural change. “It is a back-to-the-basics approach,” explained Russell Chew, the new ATO COO. “The FAA’s consolidation of activities in a leaner organization will take seven to 15 years to complete.”

In Europe, air navigation service providers are slowly beginning to change. The first step was initiated several years ago when they became privatized entities.

Observing that their customers, the airlines, have evolved toward globalization, Irish Navigation Authority CEO Eamon Brennan noted that no such thing exists in the ATC world. “With as many as 71 area control centers [ACCs] in Europe and coordination between ACCs adding to complexity, some centers will have to close or merge.”

However, he quickly added, “Airlines will have to help financially to support the social impact.” Brennan sees four to six large providers remaining in the future. “Cooperation will ease the pain of this process.”

IATA’s member airlines could not agree more: “We welcome, as a positive first step, the ‘airspace regulation’ that creates one European upper information region and functional blocks of airspace above 28,500 feet. Airlines did expect greater progress at a faster pace. The benefits provided by a unified airspace in Europe are urgently needed by airlines.”

Some additional areas to examine include the consolidation of air navigation service providers, with appropriate safeguards to eliminate abuse. “We need airspace rationalization and fewer control centers,” urged Günther Matschnigg, senior president of safety, operations and infrastructure with IATA.

Brennan further said, “We have to review our working practices. The current 100-percent cost-recovery system is providing no incentive to achieve performance targets. Economic regulation is a way to achieve that goal, to force economic reality on air navigation service providers. We should set targets to 2020 to reduce our numbers.”

This is in line with the EC’s plans. According to the EC’s Van Houtte, a new charging regime will be needed to support the establishment and operation of functional blocks of airspace. “The charging regime will apply not only to the current en route area, but also to terminal charges. The principles of cost-relatedness and non-discrimination may over time lead to adjustments to the balance between these two charge categories.”

Technology Is No Longer a Major Issue

“It is not a technology problem,” claimed Neil Planzer, vice president of Boeing ATM. “Single European Sky is a magnificent concept but it does not provide for a change of the system. We need network-centric solutions, using proven technologies providing for a common picture of operations, secure links and a collaborative decision-making process. In this new integrated system we will be able to dispatch the rightinformation for the right users at the right time.” The U.S. and UK defense authorities seem ahead of the game in proposing network-centric system architectures.

Boeing ATM calls for a change: “Enhancing the ATM system alone will not transform the system. Governments and service providers must have the courage to go ahead for a network-enabled system, which could provide between $10 and $30 billion in savings.”

Rockwell Collins’ Rick Heinrich, director of strategic initiative, acknowledged that avionics mainly require software updates to meet the new requirements. However, he further noted that some technological challenges remain, such as refreshing cycles that are becoming shorter, the necessity to plan the transition from the old system to the new and the need to accommodate different demands by incremental solutions that are cost effective. Additional aspects to consider are the transparency for the user and the reliability and availability of the equipment.

“We need global solutions for coordinated development of avionics, ground infrastructure automation and procedures,” Heinrich added.

Airline representatives, of course, have a different view on the burden that is put on their shoulders. IATA’s Matschnigg claimed the framework regulation that is put in place in Europe passes on the costs to the airlines. He said, “We need economic regulation or competition.”

IATA supports the functional block of airspace concept but prefers a user-driven approach. IATA is clearly in favor of VDL Mode 2 as the standard for VHF datalink. It also wants standardization of equipment to make off-the-shelf purchases possible to reduce acquisition costs. This is not the end of the story. Installation costs can also be prohibitive. An $87,000 multimode radio receiver can cost more than $1 million to install, not including downtime or man hours.

Airlines such as KLM would also like to take full advantage of existing equipage. VDL Mode 2, controller-pilot data link (CPDLC), PRnav and extended squitter for automatic dependent surveillance broadcasting (ADS-B) are on the shopping list of KLM’s senior manager of ATM strategy and charges, Ben Berends. He is in favor of a “step-by-step approach in an affordable way.”

Take South African Airways (SAA) as an example: a full FANS package for a Boeing 747-400 would cost $377,706 just for the equipment. The associated modification costs would add $444,275 to the bill. Add in EGPWS and the total rises to $947,108. The return on investment would provide a total saving of just $641 per flight, in terms of fuel and maintenance costs.

“Savings must come in optimum trajectories, vertically and horizontally achievable by ADS-B, global RVSM and better arrival coordination at airports,” noted SAA executive manager Colin Jordaan. “Avionics manufacturers are extremely frustrated. We have to choose one communication solution from among the many proposed. Scandinavians want VDL Mode 4, the FAA wants VDL Mode 3 and IATA wants VDL Mode 2, whereas Eurocontrol pushes for mode-S extended squitter. We need only one system for the sake of global interoperability. We will not accept fitting different equipment to operate into different regions of the world.”

Moreover, Jordaan complained, “CPDLC is not yet available. It has been in the making for 12 years since the famous ICAO FANS Conference. In the meantime, Microsoft has introduced three new versions of Windows.” However, “CPDLC provides major benefits by reducing language and accent ambiguities.”

Recognizing that building a strong business case for safety is not an easy task, he stressed, “It is becoming increasingly difficult to convince a CFO to undertake an equipment retrofit unless legislation mandates the change.” Airlines also want to be able to use new equipment for at least 10 years to recoup the investment.

A Dynamic Management of the Airspace

One solution for the implementation of Single Sky would be the dynamic management of the European airspace as advocated by Eurocontrol.

Under dynamic management of the European airspace network (DMEAN), Eurocontrol aims to integrate several activities, including airspace organization and management; air-traffic flow and capacity management (ATFCM); civil/military cooperation through enhanced flexible use of airspace; the sharing of timely and consistent data; and collaborative decision-making (CDM). There will be no duplication of work, insisted Eurocontrol’s head of the network capacity business division, Joe Sultana, who successfully led the implementation of RVSM in Europe. “This grouping of activities that are separately enablers will together provide tangible benefits. Existing activities will be aligned and prioritized, and additional activities will be included if necessary.”

Sultana emphasized, “It is no longer a piece-meal approach. It is a partnership to improve the network as an integrated whole for any given scenario on any given day.”

Among expected airspace users’ benefits before and after off-blocks, Sultana listed (but did not quantify) consistent flight plans based on best possible ATM conditions and flights executed as planned on schedule and in good time for next departure. It should also help air navigation service providers to meet their obligations for their customers.

Sultana also stressed the need to address the political, as well as the technical and operational, issues in a pan-European perspective. “We have an ambitious but achievable goal to implement this program within a five-year timeframe,” he said.

Temporary Conclusion

Although there is generally broad support for a single European airspace system, the rationalization of ATC is a much more sensitive topic.

Previous attempts to reduce the number of ACCs in Germany or to create a common French-Swiss Control Center (the so-called zone of exchange project) failed. The only, albeit limited, success recorded so far in this field is Eurocontrol’s Maastricht upper airspace controlover the three Benelux countries and northern Germany. In the future, the eight-states project to create a common center, CEATS, should become operational in Vienna by 2007.

ATC Maastricht 2004

Over the last 13 years the ATC Maastricht Conference, organized by Jane’s Information Group, has become the annual meeting place for the worldwide ATC and ATM industry. ATC Maastricht 2004, which took place at the MECC in Maastricht, the Netherlands, from February 10 to 12, was the largest edition of the show to date, with 150 exhibitors and visitor pre-registration up 13 percent over last year, according to Sharon Thomas, marketing manager for event organizer CMP Information. The show now attracts more than 2,800 visitors from nearly 80 countries. Visitors to the event are mainly senior and middle managers from civil aviation authorities, government departments, air navigation service providers, airlines, airports and airport authorities.

The show features numerous vendor product launches and demonstrations, as well as various seminars. It also boasts the largest number of exhibitors at any ATC event, with the participation of Thales; Raytheon; Lockheed Martin; ITT Industries; Barco; Eurocontrol; Jotron Electronics; Rhode & Schwarz; Honeywell; and Boeing ATM.