Red tape makes Single European Sky look more like pie in the sky

 - November 15, 2006, 11:21 AM

In the last few years, the development of air traffic management in Europe has been based on the idea of creating a seamless upper airspace zone called the Single European Sky (SES). This, and its operating system, Sesar, are seen as essential to providing the paradigm shift in the way European ATM functions.

Without such a revolution, there is general agreement that Europe’s airspace will be gridlocked by 2020. However, there are beginning to be signs that some of the fundamental changes needed for SES to become a reality are moving far more slowly than the user community had been led to expect.

The SES legislative package was adopted by the European Parliament and the European Union transport ministers in March 2004 and came into effect the following April 20. It consisted of four clear regulatory elements defining the rights and responsibilities of the different actors in the European ATM system: creation of the SES framework; provision of air navigation services; the organization and use of airspace; and the interoperability of the European ATM network. It is in the latter three elements that the SES is facing the most difficulties.

Behind the SES lies the desire to radically change the way European upper airspace is organized, both to reduce delays and to improve the cost effectiveness of the system. The fact that the U.S. controls twice as much traffic as Europe at the same cost for a similar airspace volume is not lost on the airlines that have to pay for ATM services in overflight and terminal airspace charges.

Part of the problem can be traced to the far lower productivity of European system and to the particularly intractable difficulty of too many air traffic control centers (ACCs), creating major inefficiencies and leading to higher associated costs. Productivity is measured as flight-hours per controller-hours on duty.

The 2004 Eurocontrol Performance Review Commission (PRC) revealed that European ATM was working at a surprisingly low productivity figure of 0.69, which translates to three controllers being on duty for every two aircraft. “Raising the average productivity to the third best level in Europe would improve cost effectiveness by around 60 percent,” concluded the PRC. “No high technology there–just good organization and management of costly resources.”

As for fragmentation, the PRC found in its report for 2005 that the cost of the fragmented European ATM system was between ?900 million ($1.1 billion) and a staggering ?1.4 billion ($1.7 billion) a year, representing 30 percent of all en-route ATM costs. These costs arise mainly from the fact that most ACCs are below their optimum size and there is an excessive number of them. To this is added the problem of piecemeal procurement policies and inefficient maintenance and support structures.

In the U.S. just 21 ACCs are responsible for the entire North American airspace, while in Europe there are no fewer than 69. PRC chairman Keith Williams added that 47 of those 69 operate 10 or fewer sectors, bringing the average number of sectors controlled by a single ACC to just nine, whereas in the U.S. the corresponding figure is 37 sectors.

Each ACC is associated with its own costs, resulting in inbuilt inefficiency which will be reduced only by eliminating those not necessary to run the system. But eliminating ACCs in the poorer countries where they are often a source of employment as well as national prestige is not easy.

Self Interest Blocks Progress

Eurocontrol’s director for ATM strategies, Bo Redeborn, has admitted that the SES has not yet delivered on ATM efficiency, but insists that part of the problem is that politicians have raised expectations beyond what it is reasonable. “There are a lot of shortcomings at present that will not be removed overnight,” he conceded. He added that it is not up to SES to address problems like the excessive number of ACCs but said Eurocontrol member states, by insisting on retaining their ACCs, are “protecting their own interests and not benefiting the system.”

The European Commission wants air navigation service providers (ANSPs) to be able to operate across national borders. “Under the SES, a member state will be able to designate an organization in another member state to assume responsibility for air traffic control in its airspace,” said Ben van Houtte, head of the ATM in the EC’s transport directorate. “Together with the establishment of functional airspace blocks, this opens the door to integrated service providers operating over large areas.”

It does not look as if the ACC problem will be resolved soon, especially because of the associated costs. The PRC, for example, concluded that the transition costs from a fragmented system to a defragmented one “may be substantial and in some cases prohibitive.” It added that they depend critically on the timing of changes, “particularly in relation to system and facility lifecycles.” The PRC also found that while there are several national initiatives to consolidate ACCs, “there is still plenty of scope for further national and cross-border initiative to reduce fragmentation.”

Fragmentation also has an adverse effect on the design of efficient flight sectors. The PRC argued that removing the constraints of national airspace boundaries–a central tenet of the SES–would save around ?1 billion a year. Yet there is very little progress to date. The only recent attempt to introduce a functional airspace block (FAB)–the Central European Air Traffic Services area– has run aground and has been replaced by another–the South East Europe Functional Airspace Block Approach, which looks as if it will meet with more success.

Redeborn admitted that the problem of FABs is extremely difficult. “In the end it is a combination of the need for a bottom-up and top-down approach, because on the one hand we’re looking for improved efficiency and on the other you have to take into account the social implications of what you are doing,” he said. Eurocontrol director general Victor Aguado himself posed the question, “Are FABs enough…to reduce fragmentation? We cannot be sure at this stage.”

According to Williams, it will take at least 20 years to reduce the fragmentation of the European ATM system–not good news when it is predicted that it will be handling more than twice the amount of traffic it does today. “What we’re trying to say is that when there is a plan for a new ACC, we ought to consider if we really need it,” he said.

The European Commission has asked the PRC to carry out its first-ever study into the SES and to report back in December. Williams has already held the first meetings with air service providers and, along with the performance review unit, will be talking to all other ATM stakeholders to establish whether the SES and its attendant Sesar program are moving in the right direction.

In conclusion, however, Redeborn sounded a positive note: “We’re handling more traffic with fewer delays than ever before while growth is continuing. The issue is that we know the system is too expensive to operate but we cannot move to an ideal system overnight. It is true that the SES has not delivered yet–but it has triggered some very important initiatives that will address the longer term problems.”