ANALYSIS: Why do ATC costs only ever seem to increase?

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Air traffic control charges take a significant toll on hard-hit carriers, yet different systems around the world struggle to provide efficiencies to keep pace with airline growth and advances in aircraft technology. Former CANSO director general Graham Lake looks at why ATC costs always seem to go up?

The airline industry seems to be in a perpetual state of cost reduction. Yet in the world of air traffic management, a service industry on which it depends, the culture is quite different, no matter where in the world you look.

As if to make the point, European transport commissioner Siim Kallas, delivered a scathing speech aimed at EU governments and air traffic control providers at an EU Single European Sky meeting in Cyprus in October.

Kallas said air traffic control continues to be too expensive and hampered by a high level of delays. More­over, he said the inefficiencies in the European air traffic management system are "estimated to impose additional costs of €5 billion [$6.5 billion] per year... an appalling waste of time and money".

It is clear that even the EU, with all its political and economic power and massive investments, has, nearly 10 years on, been unable to deliver the desired results in European airspace.

These challenges are not confined to Europe. Industry insiders will have no doubt that those air traffic management providers outside of the Single European Sky domain will be breathing a sigh of relief that they do not have a supra-national regulatory body such as the EU looking over their shoulders, benchmarking performance, and public pronouncing on efficiency.

Nevertheless, the global air traffic management system today provides for the safe and efficient handling of millions of flights, but at what cost? For an airline, ATC charges are reputed to represent between 6% and 15% of direct costs, in Europe alone user charges exceed €8bn, and globally the figure is perhaps three times that, so the topic is worth some analysis.

Leaders in ATC work hard to deliver the improvements they know are necessary, but the structure of the industry means progress is too slow.

So why is it so difficult to change?

The ICAO convention of 1944 requires that each member state establish an air traffic control service.

Every state set about establishing its own state-owned air traffic control service provider and amending the ICAO standards, using its own transport regulator to suit its own purposes. Staff were trained at national academies and awarded national licences that were not transferable. Equipment was procured from national suppliers and services operated in line with existing government practices.

Advances in aircraft capability, particularly in range, together with the relentless growth in air traffic, highlight many inconsistencies in the ATM system and its regulation worldwide.

These differences and inefficiencies increased risk and cost. The system was stretched to the limit, and delays increased. Governments recognised the need to act, but failed to grasp aviation's global nature. Incompatible solutions emerged in Europe, North America and Asia, increasing complexity.

The inevitable results of an airspace system fragmented by national boundaries, rather than traffic flows, was perhaps best illustrated by the 2010 Icelandic volcano eruption.

This highlighted differences in regulatory and operating approach adopted by different countries, even within Europe, and the different philosophies elsewhere. The changes necessary will take years to implement.

Today, your national air traffic control provider for en route services is almost certainly owned by the state. Only a handful worldwide are privately owned firms.

Each ATC provider will also have a different relationship with its national defence organisation, which in turn demands priority over airspace.

For terminal services (ATC around airports) some governments allow competition. This has given rise to commercial service provision, which in turn has lowered costs, although there is as yet no sign of the low-cost revolution that characterised the big cost changes in airlines. Nevertheless the "LCC revolution" for air traffic control provision is unlikely to be far away.

Wherever you are based, it's worth taking a close look at your ATC provider, understanding how it is structured, who the shareholders are, their political constraints, and objectives.

An efficient ATC system delivering the safety, capacity and costs society demands, is an economic necessity.

Governments as regulators and often owners of the national ATC provider, have a responsibility to set and ensure delivery of ATC performance. Not all consult adequately with airspace users to establish acceptable objectives. Does yours?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Graham Lake is a principal at Aviation Management and has spent his career in aviation services and ATC, most recently serving as director general at air navigation services organisation CANSO