Faced with stagnant economies and rising fuel prices, Europe's airline industry is pressing leaders to speed up the modernisation of the continent’s air traffic control system as a way to improve efficiency.
Airlines are overhauling aircraft and retiring older planes to squeeze out savings, but the industry sees management of the airways as crucial to the longer-term competitiveness.
“Reforming air traffic control is absolutely essential,” Simon McNamara, deputy director general of the European Regions Airline Association (ERA), said yesterday (10 April). “Regrettably, the pace of change is very slow.”
McNamara, speaking from ERA’s headquarters in Britain on the industry's performance, accused EU national governments of holding back progress in improving Europe’s air traffic management, or ATM, system.
The European Commission in 2004 presented a plan to end fragmentation in handling Europe’s 26,000 daily flights through its Single European Sky initiative that includes more integrated control system and the sharing of research and technology through the SESAR programme. A new generation of air traffic control technology is now in the development phase, with deployment set to begin in 2014.
The EU initiative also aims to improve coordination with the NextGen ATM system in the United States to handle busy transatlantic routes.
But some EU governments have raised concerns about loss of control over aerial military operations, while others fear lost jobs as Europe moves towards expansion of regional ATM networks.
Besides ERA, other industry groups say regional coordination has long-term benefits for carriers and the environment by reducing delays, cutting flight distances and improving safety.
Catching up on the ground
The Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO) and US aircraft maker Boeing recently renewed their calls for accelerated integration of flight controls in Europe. They contend that advanced navigation systems on aircraft are underutilised because of older ground-control systems and lack of coordination.
“The capabilities of today’s high-technology airplanes are underutilised in the current constrained and outdated ATM system, undermining the profitability of the aviation industry,” Neil Planzer, vice president of Air Traffic Management for Boeing Flight Services, said in a statement announcing a new report on flight management produced with the Netherlands-based CANSO.
“We are fully committed to supporting long-term modernisation efforts such as SESAR and NextGen without losing sight of improvements we can make today.”
Rocked by losses from the 2010 Iceland volcano and grounded economies in many EU countries, the airline industry expects another tough year.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) last month downgraded its industry outlook for 2012 partly due to higher oil prices. IATA expects airlines to turn a global profit of $3 billion (€2.3 billion) in 2012, but it estimates that European carriers will lose a net $600 million (€458 million).
The industry forecasts the average price of oil to be $115 (€88) per barrel, up from $99 (€77).
Leaner and greener
Carriers have taken steps to cut costs and – by doing so – claiming they are also reducing their environmental footprint. For example, airlines are shedding aircraft weight by switching to slimmer seats that are 30% lighter and save space – allowing up carriers to pack in extra seats.
Germany’s Lufthansa Group – which owns Austrian, Swiss and Germanwings – has already refitted passenger aircraft with 'slimline' seats.
Design changes in new and retrofitted aircraft using lighter composite materials to reduce fuel consumption. McNamara, of ERA, says regional carriers are also switching to more efficient turbo-prop aircraft on less-travelled routes and are investing in newer fleets to reduce fuel consumption.
Despite the economic doldrums in Europe and America, global air traffic rose 6.9% in February compared to a year earlier, IATA figures show. Traffic in Europe grew 7.6%, outpacing the 5% growth in capacity.