Airlines ‘key’ to modernising EU airspace

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It is not possible to modernise European air traffic management infrastructure unless competing companies work together and airlines are involved in the development of new technologies to ensure that they satisfy operational needs, the executive director of an EU programme aimed at overhauling Europe’s airspace told EURACTIV in an interview.

“The big challenge is not so much about new technologies, it is more about how we can decide together on what needs to be done and do it,” argues Patrick Ky, executive director of the SESAR Joint Undertaking, which manages a programme seeking to modernise Europe’s air traffic management infrastructure (ATM).

SESAR is a public-private partnership comprising fifteen partners. Primary among these are ATM service providers like Germany’s DFS, and businesses like Thales, Airbus and US firm Honeywell. The two public partners are the European Union and the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol), which both contribute €700 million to the project. The remaining €28.6 billion is expected to come from the private sector.

The programme has now entered the crucial phase of developing the necessary technologies, standards and operational procedures by 2016, Ky explained. 

Cost issues

The SESAR chief estimates the overall cost of the programme at around €30 billion, mostly as a result of implementing new technologies. It is set to start in 2016 and run until 2020-25. Installing new equipment on board the aircraft is expected to cost €15-20 billion. The remainder will be used to acquire ground, airport and military systems. 

Ky explained that securing access to the right funds is essential if the programme is to prove successful, noting that work with financial institutions and airlines to find “innovative ways of funding the deployment” of new technologies would start this summer.

He believes it will be impossible to force airlines to bear the financial burden of installing new equipment on board aircraft in its entirety, arguing that ways to share the burden between airlines and aircraft manufacturers need to be found. “I can’t guarantee that we will find easy-to-implement solutions, but at least we have some different possibilities, which we need to look at,” he said. 

One such possibility is getting the European Investment Bank to fund the installation of the equipment. It could be reimbursed for the outlay once the operational benefits of the new technologies become apparent, Ky noted. 

The case for business involvement 

Reduced fuel consumption is expected to feature among such benefits, with shorter routes expected to decrease consumption by 10% per flight, the official explained. Other advantages include economies of scale related to replacing twenty different systems with one technology, and increased efficiency and productivity of air traffic controllers.

SESAR reduces the risk of investing in new technologies for business, providing public money to co-fund development, Ky said. Furthermore, he underlined that “being part of a European project means that the choices being made in terms of technologies and standards are going to be European choices,” which further reduces technological risk and uncertainty for a company. As a unique stakeholder platform for the development and validation of different products, the programme also reduces technical risks in terms of their global interoperability, Ky said. 

Asked whether SESAR could face the same type of financing problems as those which plagued Galileo, the European stallite navigation system, Ky explained that the two projects are very different and expects SESAR to escape such problems. While Galileo is about building a new infrastructure to compete with the American GPS, “SESAR is about modernising an existing infrastructure”. Such modernisation is avoidable, as current technologies date back to the 1950s and it is difficult to imagine the cost of maintaining them in 2020, he noted. 

Challenges

Ky cited making all the relevant actors work together among the main challenges facing Sesar. “It is not that obvious, because typically when you take the industry you have in the partnership companies that are competitors,” so the challenge is to ensure that the stakeholders are able cooperate on implementing the programme despite being competitors.

Another challenge, he noted, is developing “products and technologies which deliver real benefits”. This, he said, is something that is “not that obvious” either, because technologies may be developed “completely independently from the real operational needs”. 

Ky thus called for airlines and their staff to be fully involved in the project to validate the technologies, products and the case for business participation, ensuring that users can afford to buy into the new system. “We are currently organising their involvement and expect to place contracts with them before the summer,” he said. 

The official further cited stability of public funding and political priorities as preconditions of the success of Sesar. “When you are managing such a complex and long-term perspective project as SESAR, you cannot adapt the programme every three months to new priorities,” Ky said, recalling how the recent hike in oil prices made politicians want to focus on fuel efficiency as their top priority.

To read the interview in full, please click here.  

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