Airspace angst

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The Single European Sky project seems to have been around for ever. Is it making any headway?

There are two ways to look at the European Union. On the one hand, it is the source of bold initiatives that take the responsibilities of the nation state and blend them into much more efficient, continental schemes that point the way forward for global co-operation. Think of the euro, or the EU's common aviation area, where any EU carrier can operate as it pleases.

On the other hand, the EU is viewed as a tangle of mind-numbing initiatives, producing legislation that brings about lame compromises or deliberate fudges, and a place where supposedly unifying regulations are ambiguously worded, leading to different interpretations by the member states.

The Single European Sky currently seems like it belongs in the latter category for now, but could well in time become the former. The idea of taking the airspace of many nations, and managing it in a unified and efficient way surely could have applications well beyond the EU's boundaries.

But to try to find out when the Single European Skies might finally be achieved is a daunting task. Any probe soon leaves the investigator caught between accusations and counter accusations, sensitivities and technical issues and all of them neatly summarised in jargon-filled 50-page reports.

The argument for SES can be reduced to a few simple facts. Europe currently has more than 650 air traffic sectors, controlled from 50 en route units or air traffic control centres, and this, the European Commission estimates, makes it half as efficient as the US system.

Fragmentation costs European airlines €1 billion ($1.35 billion) a year, and according to IATA means they burn 12% more carbon dioxide than they need to. With the number of flights in European airspace expected to nearly double to 16 million by 2020, the continent is also running out of space in the current system. Something more efficient is needed.

It was in 1999 that the then EU transport commissioner Loyola de Palacio first suggested the SES, although the project arguably has much older roots. Eurocontrol is a body that was set up to produce a kind of SES, and since the 1970s it has been operating the Maastricht control centre, which controls the upper airspace over northern Germany and the Benelux countries, and performs other pan-European functions.

But Bo Redeborn, director of air traffic management strategies for Eurocontrol, says its past attempts to produce common rules for air traffic control across Europe were ignored. "A lot of good work was wasted," he says.

The SES legislation, a series of regulations agreed by the European parliament and the Council of Ministers (that is, ministers from each member state) in 2004 was supposed to change all that. But the "package" (as it is called in Brussels-speak) was a classic European compromise between a "top-down" solution imposed by the Commission, and a "bottom-up" approach where the member states and their air navigation service providers worked together to produce a solution.

The bottom-up approach generally won, with ANSPs agreeing to work together on creating functional airspace blocks. They got just under five years to show this approach could work. "Finding tangible results within the five years window of opportunity is the acid test for the bottom-up approach," says an EC document. "If discussions on technical issues linger on, it is an indication that the political and economic pressure by member states is not sufficient and the bottom-up approach needs to be adjusted."

This "adjustment" will take place at the end of 2008, when the EC will review progress on the FABs. The problem with this is that no informed observer of the FAB process seems to think that anything meaningful will have been achieved by that date. "Even the best of the FABs are proceeding slowly," says Jeff Poole, director of industry charges, fuel and taxation for IATA, and one of its experts on SES.

That is true even in the Northern Upper Area Control FAB - which includes Denmark and Sweden, with Estonia, Finland and Norway potential members - where, as Poole puts it, "they are Scandinavians and so they want to co-operate". But "there is not a chance they will be ready by 2008", he adds.

The EC, meanwhile, issued a statement in March saying that "it is clear that member states need to speed up efforts to obtain robust and meaningful efforts by 2008" and pointing to "big discrepancies in the intensity of efforts of member states and their air navigation service providers".

Airlines tend to blame this lack of progress on a lack of will by member states to surrender sovereignty over their airspace, and protectionist attitudes by air traffic control unions. "There are so many interests and all have to have their view, and that is why it is taking so long," says KLM. British Airways agrees, noting that states are "very reluctant to give up control of their airspace" because of politics.

Both airlines are calling for more push from the EC, and more commitment from member states. "This is a leaderless initiative," believes Poole. "It needs the Commission to be more eloquent, to give it a sense of direction."

The ANSPs, however, accuse such critics of impatience. "It is a long process, and we are working on it," says Belgocontrol, which is involved in FAB Europe Central, uniting Benelux, France, Germany and Switzerland.

An ambitious project

Belgocontrol says 100 staff from the various ANSPs are working on the FAB, and that there are seven working groups meeting every two weeks. "We are at cruising speed and it is fantastic to see all the people with their critical thinking and exchange of ideas - it is very fruitful. But these are complicated issues and it is a very ambitious project."

Even Belgocontrol cannot say if FAB Europe Central will resolve all outstanding issues by the 2008 deadline. "It is too early to say. We are still doing the studies," it says.

Alexander ter Kuile, secretary general of CANSO, the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation, suggests that this is maybe not surprising. "The development of FABs is more complex than anyone foresaw," he says. "It is only as we go down the lane we discover there are more hurdles than expected, and we get the knowledge and develop the understanding to deal with these."

He thinks the EC and the airline community just need to give the process time. "FABs are not overnight events. They involve highly complex, institutional, national and defence issues, and take Europe into legal issues that have never been addressed before. We need to think and talk and discuss about these matters to find the answers."

Among the complexities are different ATC technologies in different member states, different ATC philosophies, and even different definitions of basic terms. Redeborn at Eurocontrol points out that it is doing lots of rule-making work on behalf of the EC that is addressing these areas. "They go all the way from detailed technical definitions to high-level implementation rules about the co-ordination and transfer of data between centres," he says.

These rules must be formulated with input from the member states and then go to the Single Skies Committee of the EU to be ratified by member states, the EC and other interested states such as Norway and Switzerland. Through this painstaking process, issues such as where upper airspace starts have now been harmonised across Europe at 19,500ft (6,000m).

Eurocontrol and the so-called High Level Group set up by the EC to bring all interested parties together are also responsible for working with Europe's military on SES. The issues here are that in some, but not all, EU countries military airspace is handled separately, and often sits awkwardly in the way of key commercial traffic lanes.

Airlines say that now the Cold War is over, this airspace should be freed up, and that SES is not possible without it. But the military would in some cases like more airspace, given the increasing speeds of modern fighter aircraft.

Whether military airspace is a roadblock or a convenient excuse for member states depends on who you talk to. Redeborn at Eurocontrol says the military are happy to entertain more flexible use of military airspace, which is not required all the time anyway. "The idea is to allow the military space to operate missions, but not let them control the airspace outright, and they seem ready to play," he says.

Military catch up

But according to CANSO's ter Kuile, the military needs time to catch up on the issue. "The military side of Europe has not gone through a harmonisation and integration process like the civil side, so there is a 50-year time lag in the institutional development on the defence and civil sides," he says.

He points to "fundamental questions the aviation industry alone will not be able to resolve" - for example, the control of the skies above airbases, which cannot just be moved to suit commercial aviation needs, or at least not without enormous costs.

"These are parliamentary decisions, not decisions for ANSPs," says ter Kuile. "The only way forward is to talk to everyone, win their buy-in, get their understanding. It needs to involve not just the ANSP and ministry of transport, but also the ministry of defence, parliament, the cabinet, so there will be no fast progress."

As well as the role of the military and the willingness to create FABs, some think the original SES legislation also needs clarification. There are some signs the EC agrees, and is preparing to use its 2008 review to tighten up the definitions of what FABs should be doing.

In particular, the new rules would ensure FABs were creating cross-border synergies and not operating like "cosy gentlemen's clubs" as one expert puts it. The EC might also need to pick from the different models of each FAB and decide the most suitable for SES.

With the EU committed to a 20% cut in carbon emissions by 2002, there is also the question of the environmental impact of airlines, and how SES could reduce that. This, a highly placed source explains, was not a consideration when the 2004 legislation was drafted.

Another important factor in the progress towards SES is SESAR, the Single European Sky ATM Research programme. This has brought together airlines, manufacturers, ANSPs and other interested parties, including the US FAA, to look at the creation of a next-generation ATC system.

Set up in 2005, SESAR is currently in its definition phase, which is to be completed in 2008. A development phase will then produce a detailed plan for a new ATM system by 2013, to be implemented between then and 2020.

SESAR runs parallel with the other SES initiatives. Unlike the FABs, it will not address the fragmentation of European airspace, yet the work of the FABs presumably must take into account that it will ultimately be SESAR technology and approaches that will put true European single skies into effect.

In theory, the two initiatives should come together in 2013, producing a grand plan that can then be approved by all parties. SESAR seems to be making good progress, announcing the completion of a series of "deliverables" over the past year. But one insider believes the definition phase will be when "the wheels come off the cart". There are also some complaints that equipment providers are too dominant on SESAR and ANSPs don't have a loud enough voice.

The need for clear regulation

One final issue for SES could be regulatory, in that each country is responsible under the Chicago Convention for the safety of its own airspace. Some point to the July 2002 crash between a Bashkirian Airlines Tupolev Tu-154 and a DHL Boeing 757 freighter over Uberlingen in southern Germany as an example of the problems that could occur.

Though under Swiss air traffic control at the time, liability for the crash nevertheless ended up with the German government. So how would SES sort out such situations? Some think the fledgling European Aviation Safety Agency should have a role here, but others say existing regulations will do. "All you need is an agreement between states to cover liability," says Redeborn. "Uberlingen was only an issue because there was no agreement between states, only between ATCs."

Can these issues be resolved, and will SES become a reality some time soon? As so often in the EU, there are grounds for optimism and grounds for despair. Yes, there are complexities and compromises and politicking. But the continent did after all produce the euro, borderless trade, and the common aviation area. SES might just turn out to be another such success.

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Eurocontrol