Europe takes big step toward a single sky

Farnborough Air Show » 2008
July 7, 2008, 9:48 AM

On May 6, a long-term solution to Europe’s air traffic control congestion problems came a giant step closer with the launch of the Single European Sky (SES) development phase. The event, in Rome, marked the end of the challenging two-year definition phase of the SES air traffic management research (SESAR) program and the beginning of an effort that, if it succeeds, will yield an environment in which aircraft will cross Europe in totally seamless airspace. The resulting improvement in efficiency will lead to not only huge fuel savings but also help airlines to meet the ever tougher environmental demands being placed on their operations.

European air traffic management (ATM) will then have reached the Holy Grail of almost 100 percent efficiency. While estimates of fuel savings in the completed SES are impossible to predict, Eurocontrol’s SESAR and ATM strategy chief Bernard Miaillier reckons that “up to 25 percent of the flight inefficiencies we see today will be eliminated.”

Eurocontrol has been at the heart of the SESAR program since it was launched in 2006 and Miaillier told AIN he is “very proud” that the definition phase, which resulted in the delivery of an ATM master plan, has come in exactly on time. “It was a real challenge, and given the number of partners who worked together on this it is a real achievement,” he said.

The SESAR consortium comprises all relevant sectors of the aviation industry, including more than 60 companies, European ATM service providers, airspace users associations, military airspace users and even non-European ATM stakeholders interested in global interoperability. Miaillier pointed out that there will be a substantial aircraft market for retrofitting aircraft with the necessary SES avionics.
The stated objective of SESAR is, in Eurocontrol’s words, “to eliminate the fragmented approach to ATM, transform the European ATM system and synchronize the plans and actions of the different partners and federate resources.” The definition phase, which has just ended, ran from 2005 to 2008, the development phase runs to 2013 and the deployment phase from 2014 to 2020.

The SESAR ATM master plan  (see diagram) is the key to the whole SES concept and as such has to have legislative teeth if national ATM providers are to be kept in line with the extremely challenging timetable and the funding requirements that go with it. A crucial moment came in early June, when the European transport ministers agreed to the “second package” of European SES legislation. This put right the failure of the initial SES legislation to compel national ATM service providers to meet performance targets.

The master plan is structured in a series of five ATM service levels (0-5) divided into three implementation packages which set the dates when initial operational capability of each service level should be achieved. The first implementation package covers service levels 0 to 1, ending in 2012; package two covers service levels 2 and 3, out to 2019, and package three covers levels 4 and 5, taking the SES from 2020 onward.

Miaillier explained that Eurocontrol and the ATM stakeholders are “well along the path” to achieving service level 0, which essentially formalizes improvements such as continuous descent approach, continuous climb departure and flexible use of airspace. He added that “a lot of work has been done already” on the actions needed to achieve level 1.

Eurocontrol is not avoiding the realities of the enormous challenge it faces in bringing the SES to fruition, however, and has identified the following seven “key requirements” seen as critical for successful implementation of the master plan:
• establishing a single European legislative framework;
• achieving a performance-led approach, supported by a “comprehensive performance monitoring and reporting system”;
• establishing clear ownership and endorsement of the master plan at all levels, including political, regulatory and industrial;
• defining a clear governance and leadership structure for deployment of the system;
• establishing a single system design function for the design of the technical architecture of the future ATM system;
• ensuring interoperability of SESAR results at both regional and global levels; and
• ensuring that industry understands the balance between cost and benefits.

This latter element is crucial to the expected €30 billion ($46 billion) cost of the system, much of which will have to come from the private sector. “We must be able to show industry the business case for investing in the new technologies that will be needed,” said Miaillier.

Major risks have also been identified and these include the old problem, which relates only to levels 0 and 1, of non-homogenous deployment of technology advances across Europe’s ATM service providers. There are also worries about delays in the availability of the necessary technologies, failure to stick to a performance-based approach to implementation and failure of the national states to agree on a suitable regulatory framework.

In Eurocontrol’s favor, however, is the anticipated slowdown in traffic growth resulting from the sudden and huge increase in fuel costs. Miaillier said past air transport crises have never been used successfully to catch up on ATM improvements. This time he pledged, “We will take full advantage of the chance to catch up and improve efficiency.”

The master plan has built-in flexibility to take into account the research-and-development activities emanating from the SESAR joint undertaking (JU), the legal entity formed in February 2007 under European Community law to ensure harmony between the various state and industry-funded research-and-development initiatives. As such, the JU is central to the success of the SES. It is responsible for securing funding, for defining and updating the SESAR work program and allocating work packages, and for “ensuring consistency, efficiency and technical progress on all aspects of the work program.”

The SES project is probably the single most complex attempt at achieving trans-border European cooperation on a new technology-based system and as such it is bound to meet hiccups and setbacks. The delivery of the master plan already represents a huge achievement in that it sets clear, legally binding targets for the SES. The goal is an ATM system that will accommodate aircraft flying four-dimensional routes governed solely by their preferred trajectories and timings. If it is achieved, Europe will have set a precedent for ATM cooperation of which it can truly be proud.

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