A growing sector with growing problems
Aviation appears to have recovered from the temporary slowdown following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. The European Commission estimates that air traffic will grow by 4-5% annually over the coming years, leading to a near doubling of traffic by 2020.
"Current air traffic control infrastructure will probably be incapable of meeting the new challenges relating to the sustainable development of European air transport," states a March 2007 Commission Communication reviewing the European aviation situation. According to the report, the capacity of the current air traffic management (ATM) system has "reached its limits," while the technologies used "are obsolete". It adds that "the proliferation of different technical systems remains a concern".
The result has been a sharp increase in delays for aircraft, with major repercussions for both users and airlines, for whom hold-ups can cost up to €2 billion a year. The rise in traffic also adds to safety concerns and is causing emissions from the sector to grow despite technological progress.
The creation of a Single European Sky (SES) is due to tackle these issues. Its stated objectives are to:
- Triple capacity;
- Halve operating costs,
- Reduce the environmental impact per flight by 10%, and;
- Increase safety by a factor of 10.
The EU's upper airspace is currently defined by the national borders of its 27 members and managed by more than 50 air traffic control centres. The fragmentation impacts on safety, limits capacity and adds as much as €5 billion per year to operating costs, according to the Commission. It concludes that a more rational organisation of air traffic, with greater portions of airspace operated as one single entity, could thus help resolve the looming air capacity crunch faced by the EU.
A key tool proposed by the EU executive in this respect is the so-called 'functional airspace blocks' (FABs), whereby two or more countries can agree to integrate their upper airspace and designate a single service provider to control air traffic in that block. FABs are also be extended to non-EU countries.
To overcome governments' concerns about ceding control over their national airspace, current legislation allows for a "bottom-up" approach whereby it is left up to the member states to decide on how to restructure. Member states were to have the FABs in place by 4 December 2012.
However, European officials conceded that ambitious plans to consolidate national air traffic control into a regionalised system had failed, hampered by national inaction despite years of planning.
Siim Kallas, the European Commission vice president in charge of transport, vowed to take “every possible action” to enforce the eight-year-old agreement after many countries missed the 4 December deadline for merging national air traffic control space into nine functional air blocks.
A technological revolution
The SESAR project (formerly known as SESAME) is the technological component of the SES, aimed at modernising air traffic management systems and infrastructure so as to facilitate the re-organisation of European airspace.
SESAR consisted first of a four-year "definition phase", launched in 2004, during which a consortium of 29 companies and organisations representing airspace users, airports, supply industry, safety regulators, controllers and research centres drew up an "Air Traffic Management Master Plan" outlining development and deployment plans up to 2025 for next-generation ATM systems.
Following the formal presentation of the 'Master Plan' on 6 May 2008, a five year "development phase" was launched under the control of the 'SESAR Joint Undertaking' (JU), which involves 32 companies, including aircraft operators, Airbus and other stakeholders. Their role is to develop the new systems and infrastructure, of which large-scale construction should begin as of 2013, under the final "deployment phase".
The technological advances envisaged include the use of satellite navigation for more accurate trajectories and a better knowledge of meteorological data with a view to improving the ability of traffic controllers and pilots to anticipate problems. A more efficient telecommunications network would also be established to replace anachronic radio control systems that increase the risk of mistakes and misunderstandings and result in flight safety problems. An updated telecommunications network would also give all stakeholders simultaneous access to flight information status, reducing arrival queues at airports and disembarkation delays and helping to improve responses to security crises.
New sensor technologies, increased automation and "smooth approach" procedures are also being developed to help improve visibility and reliability while reducing noise and gaseous emissions.
Question marks over financial support
A total of €1.4 billion from the European Commission (€350 million under the Community's Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Development and €350 million under the trans-European transport networks budget) and Eurocontrol (€700 million) will be available for R&D work and cross-border projects developed during the second phase of SESAR. The rest of the money is to come from governments and industry, although whether this will happen in practice remains dubious.
The airport capacity crunch
Around 30 major airports in Europe, responsible for handling 70% of the continent's traffic, are considered capacity-constrained. And yet, despite the fact that a shortage of runway capacity would render major investments in airspace capacity pointless, the 'Master Plan' does not address the issue, because it is a local or national planning issue over which Brussels has no power. And governments are not always willing to find the necessary money and confer planning permission for airport expansions.
So instead, the Commission has presented a separate action plan on tackling congestion at airports, which calls on governments to optimise existing capacity through improved slot allocation and more efficient flight plans. Parliament has however criticised the Communication for not going far enough, arguing that the EU will need new airports. In a non-binding report, it called on the EU executive to come up with a "Master Plan for enhanced airport capacity in Europe" before 2009, with measures to "promote and coordinate any national and cross-border initiatives for building new airport capacities".
The new package also aims to transfer increased competences to the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). While the agency currently deals only with the certification and safety of airlines, Brussels wants to hand over responsibilities for aerodromes, air traffic management and air navigation services to the agency so as to counter the rising safety risks related to the increased operational pressure as traffic rises.