Managed chaos

This first appeared as a Comment in the 11 March edition of Flight International

Air traffic management, as an industry rather than a series of national air navigation service providers, is stuck in a rut. Its leaders know this, but are unable to motivate the constituent parties to think of themselves collectively as the provider of an essential, seamless service to a global commercial air transport industry.
At the recent World ATM Congress in Madrid lots of very clever technology and software solutions were on show, and lots of business was being done, but rather in the way it always used to be: individual ANSPs were shopping for snazzy kit to make their own little backyard smarter so they can collect their user fees and, after 20 minutes of controller/pilot datalink communication, hand them on to the next guy. It’s a bit like an industry set up to collect tolls on a motorway, except they deal with it by handing out a separate subcontract for every toll-gate, and the price collected is unrelated to the distance travelled. So far the only concession to the ‘motorist’ is that they will discuss the possibility of using the same tollgate systems so the customer doesn’t get too confused. But, of course, they reserve the right to do their own thing just the same.
This issue has been under discussion for two decades, but at every global conference there is a sense of déjà vu. ANSPs are government-owned organisations with an absolute monopoly, and an allergy to change.
If the European Union, with its strong regional ­structure, allied to the European Commission’s drive ­towards constructing a Single European Sky, can’t stop its ANSPs thinking nationally and start them thinking regionally, what hope does the rest of the world have?
What puts the brakes on the system everywhere is that nations, especially small ones, think if they cede ATM functions to a regional system they risk losing their expertise in a high-tech area, and losing a high-skills employer. But even the big players – France is the classic European example – are similarly intransigent.
This nervousness is very human. The only way ­everybody can win in this game is to focus on the global horizon that everybody wants to reach, and ensure that all the national players have a chance of taking part, but are not restricted by tiny territorial templates.
If ATM goes on being a nationally-based patchwork it will never be an efficient system, regionally or globally, and air transport will suffer. But if dividing up the system functionally instead of territorially is what it would take to get everybody on board, let us look for a way of doing it.

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