The travel plans of holidaymakers were thrown into disarray this past summer when French air traffic controllers went on strike, forcing the cancellation of hundreds of flights across Europe. Airlines scrambled to contain the fallout, offering free ticket changes to affected passengers while pledging to keep any service disruption to a minimum. The strike was connected to long-running protests against plans for a Single European Sky, more commonly known as SESAR.

SESAR addresses longstanding concerns that current airspace structures around national boundaries force aircraft to fly on average 42km longer than strictly necessary, causing more delays and extra fuel burn. The result is an additional €5bn ($6.3bn) in annual airline operating expenses that are ultimately passed on to passengers in higher ticket costs. SESAR reduces these expenses by using new technologies to improve operational efficiency. Such technologies include remote control towers that allow air traffic service to be provided to isolated regions at lower operating costs and interactive planning tools that give airlines more control over what routes are flown. However, the efficiency gains associated with using these systems come at a ‘cost’; namely less human involvement in the management of air traffic. Controllers fear this will lead to job losses within their ranks.

These fears are not without merit. According to economists Frank Levy and Robert Munane, the Boeing 727 launched in 1962 required more than 5000 engineers to check the integrity of aircraft components, such as seats and hydraulic lines, by assembling a full-scale replica of the airplane. However, when the Boeing 777 was launched thirty years later, increasingly sophisticated software enabled engineers to view components on computer screens eliminating the need for physical mock-ups. The result was an airplane that was both larger and more complex, but took 52 months less to develop, and required significantly fewer workers.

Technology may well reduce demand for human labor, but it has reduced opportunities for human error, often cited as the leading cause of commercial aviation accidents. For example, the Traffic Load Prediction Device used by air navigation service provider NATS, helps supervisors balance staffing levels more effectively in response to traffic changes, thereby improving safety. Technology has also established aviation’s place as the world’s premier rapid transportation provider. Advances in long-range engine design enable passengers today to board an airplane and hours later step off that same airplane across continents. 2014 will see 3.3 billion people benefit from these advances, 800 million of who will pass through European airports alone. A worthy goal is ensuring they receive value for fees paid. Doing so means that, in the words of IATA’s Tony Tyler, “France must not buckle under the pressure of those seeking to protect themselves from the efficiency every other industry is challenged to achieve.” This sentiment holds true even if that efficiency is achieved using fewer workers.

In the years ahead, there is little doubt that SESAR opposition efforts will continue. Flights will be cancelled, delays will persist and travel chaos will plague thousands. However, these efforts will merely delay, not halt SESAR in its tracks. Technology’s increasing commonality reflects societal recognition that doing more with less contributes to overall progress and enables us to advance farther. For controllers, this means providing the best possible service while collaboratively working with management to create policies that recognize the new reality. It is a reality that they are powerless to change.