European regulators need to look beyond strict adherence to functional airspace blocks
The European Commission is focusing too heavily on chasing states for failing to comply with airspace redesign mandates, prominent air traffic management (ATM) officials say.
Not only is it questionable whether the EC will prevail with sanctions, but expectations for the redesign initiative are unrealistic, according to the officials. Also, other programs and concepts have emerged that offer greater potential for ATM reform.
One of the main goals of the Single European Sky effort is for states to merge their airspace into functional airspace blocks (FABs), making ATM flows more efficient. But a decade into this initiative, the EC and airlines are frustrated that most states have not done enough to comply with the legislative requirements established for FABs (AW&ST Feb. 18, p. 36).
The EC, which is determined to make the FABs work, is launching legal action against states that have not met deadlines. It is also preparing to tweak the FAB process again when it releases its third Single Sky legislative package.
However, Eamonn Brennan, CEO of the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA), says he would be “amazed if any state is taken to court” over the missed FAB deadline. He notes that some of the states targeted by the EC are among the largest and most powerful. Other industry sources believe this is an unlikely issue for the EC to pick a fight with states over, since it is not something that resonates with the public.
The states have actually made some progress with the FABs, and have coalesced into nine blocks. But the lack of streamlining within FABs, as well as tardiness by most states in formally establishing them, has prompted the EC to begin legal action that would proceed to the European Court of Justice.
This will likely become an issue of legal interpretation, says Bo Redeborn, Eurocontrol's principal director for ATM. It could be difficult for the EC to claim that the FABs have not been established, even if many only exist on paper, he says. And it is unlikely the states will admit they have not met the formal requirement. “The states won't just say sorry, send us a bill, we are ready to accept a sanction,” notes Redeborn.
Even though the anticipated advantages of the FABs have not been delivered, there have still been positives out of the process, Redeborn says. The FAB initiatives have created incentives for states to cooperate more closely on ATM, and “this is a real benefit, with or without the success of the FAB rule itself,” Redeborn says.
“I think the commission has a tendency to overvalue whether states are compliant or not,” Redeborn says. “For [the EC] it is about checking a box—But that is not the point. The point is creating an environment of cooperation in a way that states or air navigation service providers (ANSPs) have never cooperated before.”
However, Redeborn says the FABs may not be the most efficient vehicle to improve the performance of the ATM network. He cautions that they are not a “silver bullet or panacea.”
“Many people believe that the FABs are the only solution, and if that doesn't work, then the system will collapse,” says Redeborn. “There is nothing fundamentally wrong with setting up FABs, but it is just that it doesn't solve all the problems. Other things could make a bigger difference.”
Through improved upper airspace planning, Eurocontrol and its members are already working to straighten out inefficient routes, and hundreds of these adjustments are being made every year, says Redeborn. He adds that if the ATM system can deliver the most optimum profile for a flight, then the type of organizational structure should not matter.
There are also initiatives like the Borealis Alliance, which promotes cooperation among several Northern European ANSPs. And on the technology side, a group of five ANSPs is collaborating on the joint development of automation systems. Both these efforts are occurring outside the FAB process.
Redeborn says technology has opened the way for new approaches since the FAB concept was introduced.
For example, one concept that could help optimize the network would be for flight-plan processing to be conducted by a centralized provider and then sent to area control centers. “Technology has advanced to the point where this can be done in real time,” says Redeborn. With advanced procedures such as 4-D trajectories, it does not make sense to have processing done at 69 centers in Europe, he says.
This would allow infrastructure to be centralized while theoretically reducing the need for workforces to be moved or control centers closed.
Eurocontrol Director General Frank Brenner says the agency has identified a list of projects that would be best handled at FAB level. However, there are also several others—including calculating time-based 4-D trajectories—that Eurocontrol believes should be handled as pan-European services.
Many data management and system-wide information-sharing roles could also be centralized at a European level, Brenner notes. He says ANSPs, manufacturers or joint ventures could bid to be the providers of these centralized services.
The IAA's Brennan believes a much more radical pan-European solution is necessary.
Ideally, European Union agencies should claim authority over the continent's airspace and redesign it from scratch, says Brennan. “Europeanizing” the airspace in this manner is the only way to achieve real reform, he notes. Air traffic control services for the resulting airspace regions should then be put out to tender.
Existing Single Sky efforts—including technology upgrades—avoid the real problem of fragmentation, says Brennan. “Sort out the airspace first, and everything else will follow.”
Brennan says the FAB process was always unlikely to work as intended, since the legislation left it up to the states to negotiate FABs in a so-called bottom-up approach. The ANSPs of each state have a vested interest in retaining their authority and not consolidating services, he says.
For the FABs to produce the required savings, there needs to be fewer ANSPs, control centers and employees, says Brennan. And asking ANSPs to volunteer to make these cuts is “like turkeys voting for Christmas.”