Paris Air Show

Single European Sky Still Fragmented

 - June 17, 2013, 3:50 AM
Eurocontrol’s network manager operations center in Brussels is based on the concept of a central flow management unit. It has the responsibilty to coordinate and manage flight planning and airspace data, as well as air traffic in the 39 ECAC member states.

This year is a crucial one for the modernization of Europe’s complex air traffic management (ATM) system, as it transitions from years of definition and development to initial deployment of Single European Sky (SES) systems designed to improve efficiency, save fuel and cut costs.

The deployment phase follows approval in October 2012 of the updated European ATM Master Plan, a revised roadmap for SES deployment. The Master Plan was released just ahead of the ICAO Air Navigation Conference last November, in which major steps were taken toward a Global Air Navigation Plan (GANP) that will eventually lead to the ultimate goal of a seamless global sky. With a projected doubling of world civil air traffic from today’s 30 million flights per year (nine million in European airspace) over the next decade, this has become an urgent priority.

The conference agreed on a revised GANP which, for the first time, includes a timeline within which states can implement their own ATM improvements in accordance with their needs. It also went a long way toward defining the operational objectives regarding interoperability and a single global ATM system. However, given the economic difficulties besetting many countries (not least European), the conference was forced to accept that many will find it difficult to make major changes to their existing ATM strategies in the short term.


The challenges remain huge: European attempts to implement a harmonised sky have fallen foul of numerous obstacles and are being achieved only with the help of the muscular backing of the European Commission (EC). Key European ATM stakeholders realized that to ensure international credibility they needed to show solidarity. At the ICAO conference the states of the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC), the European Union and Eurocontrol, working with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the European Commission (EC) and the Sesar Joint Undertaking (SJU, which runs the SES ATM Research program, or Sesar), presented a unified front on a single stand under the slogan “Partnering To Deliver Global Interoperability.”

The need for stakeholders to do better at coordinating their efforts is reflected in the unfortunate fact that, a decade after the adoption of the first SES package (it was followed by a second in 2010), European airspace is still divided into more than 650 sectors and has largely failed to implement Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs), seamless ATM areas seen as essential to the achievement of an SES, despite the 2012 deadline for implementing them throughout the European region.

Sesar is the technological pillar of the SES. With more than 300 individual projects, it is a massive undertaking, reflecting the daunting challenges posed by the attempt to knit a disparate, multi-state ATM system into a single, seamless, entity. But now, given ICAO’s global initiatives, the pressure is on: the SJU has developed the original ATM Master Plan into a set of technological and procedural changes which, at the end of this year, will begin to be transformed from a set of rules and guidelines into an operational infrastructure ready for gradual deployment.

Peter Hotham, Sesar deputy director and chief of technology and innovation, pointed to the fact that in the past 40 years, aircraft have gone from being manually flown to mainly automated, from analog to digital cockpits and from three pilots and an engineer to just two pilots. “During that time frame, European ATM has retained many 1970s technologies, remains highly fragmented [and] lacks interoperability and proper information exchange. It does not provide good value to the user community.”

Responsibility for coordinating deployment will come under a yet-to-be-appointed “deployment manager,” said Hotham, which is likely to be a group, or consortium, that will take control in 2015. While stakeholders are free to deploy elements of the Sesar system now, if they see a business case, he added, the real action will begin after the deployment manager takes control, “thus turning a successful R&D programme into a successful modernisation program.” Eventually, if individual stakeholders–ANSPs, for example–fail to implement the improvements called for in the Master Plan, the European Commission will have power to mandate action.

Bo Redeborn, Eurocontrol’s principal director, ATM, is optimistic about the advent of the SES but warns that there are so many necessary deployment actions that it is impossible to do them all in parallel. “We have to sequence them according to priority,” he said. This view is backed by a 2011 European Commission report (“Assessing the macroeconomic impact of Sesar”), which concluded that while on-time implementation of Sesar measures could contribute €419 billion to the European economy between 2013 and 2030, failure to do so would cost up to €268 million over the next 10 years.

The report claimed that Sesar deployment “is expected to enable 1.6 million additional flights [a year], along with 19-percent lower overall fuel consumption, while the reduction in delays and related costs would add a further 17-percent saving in overall costs, another 12 percent coming from savings created by shorter flight times.”

The aviation stakeholders, which will have to pay for Sesar implementation, are increasingly being sold the incontrovertible business case that will justify the expected €32 billion cost of the SES by looking at new ideas to expedite early deployment. “Sesar needs to address opportunities for changing the traditional architecture,” said Redeborn. “For example, we’re pushing airport collaborative decision making (CDM) really hard, as this is a great way of improving throughput.” CDM focuses on the aircraft turnaround and departure sequencing process and involves stakeholders–airport and aircraft operators, ground handlers, air traffic control and the network manager–all working together, transparently, sharing data and ideas.

Redeborn points to a simple measure, such as reducing the distance between aircraft taking off and landing, which is based on outdated calculations on wake turbulence. “Currently, the weight of a low-end medium category aircraft is about the same as for a high-end light aircraft. If we increase the number of categories we can improve throughput significantly.” Ongoing work centers on developing a wake-vortex system to optimize runway throughput and reduce delays. The system would be customized for different airports and runway configurations.

Major progress has already been made with a key element of Sesar, the System-Wide Information Management (Swim) system. The “intranet” of the future ATM system, it will enable continuous sharing of data among aircraft, air-navigation-service providers and airport ground infrastructure. At the second Swim demonstration day, in November 2012, airports, providers of weather and volcanic ash information, airlines and air-traffic-control centers were able to exchange information instantaneously. Then, in February this year, the system was demonstrated live to the World ATM Congress in Madrid. Ten different ATM organizations successfully exchanged information on airspace, flights, airports and weather. “The emphasis of the future ATM system must be on information, not communications,” said Hotham. “We’re looking at a cultural change here, as much as a technological one.”

Another successful Sesar result has been the growth of free-route airspace in areas controlled by Eurocontrol’s Maastricht Upper Area Control Center (MUAC) and Germany’s DFS. Following initial introduction in 2011, 298 new direct routes have been implemented, bringing the total number of direct routes in the area to 656. This has created a large, free-route airspace area over Belgium, most of Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. “This is the first tangible achievement of the ‘Free Route Airspace Maastricht and Karlsruhe’ project to deliver concrete, innovative solutions which generate benefits for all air transport stakeholders,” said the SJU. “Adding 4-D trajectory management and Swim will take these early achievements further into the future, delivering efficient, economical performance through use of optimized trajectories.”

Further efficiencies, and fuel savings, were demonstrated in November in a trial of the Atlantic Interoperability Initiative to Reduce Emissions (Aire) program, in which the SJU and the U.S. FAA are working on a series of projects to accelerate the adoption of more environment-friendly ATM operations. Using new operational procedures, such as the continuous-descent approach and continuous-climb departure, fuel savings of up to 3 percent have already been achieved, with more to come as the concept is developed. “It was a win-win initiative in which a number of trial procedures have now become day-to-day operations,” said Redeborn.

Hotham pointed to the increasing cooperation between the Sesar program and other single-sky initiatives, in particular the U.S. NextGen program. “The SES can’t be isolated, because aviation is global, so we’re taking international cooperation very seriously.” SJU and NextGen officials signed a memorandum of understanding in 2010 which Redeborn said is working “really well.”

The success of the Sesar approach has already been demonstrated, said Hotham. “When you look back to 2007, there was no organization at all. Since then, we have defined and updated a comprehensive roadmap for the future ATM system and launched a huge development program, which is demonstrating real results. Now it’s up to the stakeholders to make the Sesar targets reality.”


Approved in late 2012, the updated European ATM Master Plan provides a revised roadmap for deployment of the SES. The first significant update of the Master Plan, the update sets the following aims.

· To simplify the original Master Plan and focus the ATM community on a manageable set of operational changes which will provide significant performance benefits.

· To prepare for the Sesar deployment phase.

· To review and update potential risks.

· To promote and ensure global interoperability, in particular with the U.S. NextGen ATM modernization program.

· To promote synchronization of ATM research and development, and deployment, to ensure global interoperability.

· To update the standardization and regulatory roadmaps.

Management of the Master Plan is the responsibility of the Sesar Joint Undertaking (SJU), which is charged with developing the technical and procedural changes which, it is hoped, will bring about the necessary revolution in European ATM.

Deployment leading to the SES is planned in three steps: time-based operations, trajectory-based operations and performance-based operations. The essential operational changes necessary to achieve time-based operations are grouped into six key features, describing the means by which the initial performance goals will be achieved.

The updated Master Plan provides the best possible view on how the European ATM system will evolve over the coming decades. It is not a deployment plan, but rather a high-level statement, identifying the operational and technological evolution of the ATM system. It is designed to work in parallel with the Network Strategy Plan, which addresses the gap between current operational performance and the target for the SES system, providing additional operational objectives and solutions.

The Plan maintains the performance goals set in 2008 by the European Commission to be met by 2020 and beyond:

· 75 percent increase in airspace capacity;

· ATM-induced accidents and incidents remaining the same despite traffic growth;

· 10 percent reduction in the effect flights have on the environment;

· 50 percent reduction in cost of flights compared to 2004.



· The European ANS system covers 37 air navigation service providers (ANSPs) and is worth €8.6 billion a year. It is operated by some 57,000 people, of which 16,900 are air traffic controllers (compared to 13,000 in the U.S. with twice the area).

· In 2010 the European ATM system controlled 9.5 million flights and on busy days, 33,000 flights. The forecast for 2020 foresees this increasing to 17 million flights yearly and 50,000 flights on busy days.

· In 2010 there were 19.4 million minutes delay for en-route flights. On average, each flight was 49 km longer than direct flight.

· European airspace covers an area of 10.8 million sq km. There are 60 control centers, one of the results of fragmented airspace.

· Estimated costs of fragmentation of airspace amounts to €4 billion a year.

· The five biggest ANSPs (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK) handle 54 percent of European traffic.

· As a consequence, 40 percent of the remaining ATM costs are borne by 32 other smaller ANSPs.