EU air traffic scheme gets off the ground

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Partners involved in the development of the EU's future air traffic management (ATM) system have signed contracts worth some €2 billion to kick off work on the scheme, which is supposed to help the sector prepare for a projected doubling or even tripling of air traffic by 2020.

At the same time, the system under development by Sesar, the technological component of the EU's Single Sky initiative, seeks to improve safety "by a factor of ten".

Led by a public-private partnership called the Sesar Joint Undertaking (Sesar JU), the scheme aims to reduce the environmental impact of flying by 10% per flight thanks to fuel reductions. 

Indeed, as European skies are still divided into 27 different airspace sectors, aircraft are forced to fly through numerous air traffic control systems to get to their destination, instead of flying the shortest route. The fragmentation of the EU sky also raises safety concerns by creating more airborne traffic jams. 

"On top of green and safety objectives, Sesar will also contribute to the viability of the entire sector, as it will cut air transport operating costs in the longer term," said EU Transport Commissioner Antonio Tajani. The new system is expected to cut ATM-related expenses by half. 

The 16 contracts signed on 12 June 2009 total €1.9 billion for the upcoming seven years and mark the beginning of the Sesar programme's execution. The Commission and Eurocontrol, the European organisation for the safety of air navigation, both contribute €700 million. 

The remaining €500 million is provided by industry players in the ATM sector industry, including airports, Spanish air navigation service provider AENA, French manufacturer Thales, aircraft manufacturers Airbus and Alenia Aeronautica, and airborne equipment manufacturers Honeywell and Thales.

A total of 16 work packages and 295 projects are to be undertaken between 2009 and 2016 to develop and deliver the necessary operational and technical specifications, procedures, prototypes and validation activities for the progressive deployment of the future European ATM system.

Among the changes it is hoped that the new technologies will bring are more predictability and precision improvements for operations, by taking into account real-time weather and traffic evolution, for example. 

An air traffic management intranet will also be developed to enable all actors to have full access to the "right information at the right time," and airport ground activities will be fully integrated into the ATM process. In parallel, increased automation support for air traffic controllers and pilots should enable them to concentrate on "high-added-value activities".

New Sesar components and procedures should be gradually operational by 2020. "But it is essential that we can also identify and develop quick wins for implementation from 2010," insisted Patrick Ky, executive director of the Sesar JU. The undertaking is currently in the process of identifying what those short-term results could be.

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