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Arguably the most complex multinational high technology programme ever undertaken by mankind, Europe’s single European sky air traffic management research (SESAR) project could be forgiven for failing to achieve its objectives on the grounds that the level of cross-border co-operation required for success is unachievable.

However, if SESAR succeeds it will be an amazing achievement. The European Commission, Eurocontrol and the SESAR Joint Undertaking (SJU) will have overcome politics by persuading 40 sovereign nations to surrender their right to control all civil air traffic in their skies in favour of a centralised system. They will also have inspired nations to agree to adopt and invest in multiple harmonised air traffic management (ATM) technologies and methodologies for the future – and at the same time to accept lower user charges from the airlines in return for their investment. And all this while harmonising the entire effort with parallel developments in the USA’s NextGen ATM modernisation programme.

Is it doomed to fail, then? The broad answer is no – the partner nations have gone too far to turn back, or even to bring to a halt the massive machine watched over by the SJU team in Brussels.

Partner nations could slow it down, however, just by dragging their heels on investment, re-equipment or retraining. The SESAR master plan carefully avoids providing an exact deadline for the completion of the many parallel work packages that make up the total task.

But there are some public milestones – 2014 marks the beginning of the deployment stage for all the carefully developed concepts, both technical and operational. By 2020 the system should be delivering the product – an ATM system that works very differently than that in operation today.

There is definitely scepticism among users, however – and some of them are very vocal. IATA director general Tony Tyler, speaking last month at the Singapore air show, said: “With some exceptions, Europe is not providing a good example in the provision of sufficient capacity for either air traffic management or airports. The single European sky is decades delayed, and recent studies point to a potential 12% shortfall in airport capacity by 2030.”

On Tyler's theme, a common industry observation is that although SESAR looks as if it is delivering on promises because ATM-related delays in European airspace have declined, that is purely because of the fall in traffic since the economic crisis began in 2008. Without the crisis, the argument runs, the results of delays in programme implementation would be clear to everyone.

According to Florian Guillermet, SJU deputy director operations and programmes, the system should be judged by results for the users, not by hitting the nominal target completion date of any one of 300 parallel work packages. Compared with the performance results in 2012, he says, by 2020 each flight should save an average of 8-14min journey time, 300-500kg (660-1,100lb) fuel and produce 950-1,580kg less carbon dioxide. Nobody questions this as a worthy objective, even if some doubt it will be met by that date.

SESAR has gone beyond an acronym – it is now the project name. The SES (single European sky) part is still relevant, but the AR (ATM research) is out of date, because it is much more than that. As Guillermet explains: “Anyone who thinks SESAR is just another research and development programme is wrong. SESAR is results-oriented, unites all aviation players [and] includes declared experts and researchers.

"We at the SJU are responsible for the co-ordination of almost 300 projects. The SESAR programme – executed in co-operation with the SJU members and associate partners, and comprising 16 work packages – will provide tangible results from the ATM network research and development programme.”

He adds, with national politicians in mind: “Ultimately, [SESAR] will boost European industry. The work packages will develop and deliver the necessary operational and technical materials [specifications, procedures, prototypes, validation reports] for the progressive industrialisation, deployment and operation of the new ATM system.”

To put the present SESAR phase in context: the project began in 2004 with the “definition phase", which was completed in 2008 and delivered the ATM master plan and performance objectives. The “development phase” (2008-2013) produced and validated the required new generation of technological systems, components and planned operational procedures.

Now, step one of the “deployment phase” (2014-2020) has started, as detailed in the diagram. Steps two and three (not shown) will complete the process, transitioning from the current time-based control system, through trajectory-based to the final destination of performance-based control. The latter state depends on having a communications network so comprehensive that it acts like Europe’s ATM nervous system, enabling the entire SES system to behave more like an organism than a machine.

SESAR’s system-wide information management (SWIM) system will know where every aeroplane is in real time, where it is going and which precise four-dimensional trajectory – the fourth dimension being time – it will use. It will also be able to cope with change as well – for example rerouting to avoid bad weather. Eurocontrol’s Network Manager is working on a system tool known as the GRRT – group rerouting tool – which can cope with change and even take advantage of it.

Only a few years ago the common conception was that ATM only happened between take-off and landing. Now it is recognised that the integration of the ground phase is fundamental – it is all about the traffic flow. This increased airport awareness followed the change in the perception of the airborne task from being air traffic control (separation only) to air traffic management (efficient traffic flow with separation) – and both concepts seem basic to the new type of ATM that SESAR is already beginning to deliver.

The idea that airports are an integral part of an ATM system came relatively late to the industry. If a modern ATM system is about enabling efficient traffic flow with safety, then the efficient management of aeroplanes and their payloads during the ground phase of the flight is also vital. Flow rate and throughput on the ground – plus complete integration with the airborne phase – is fundamental, hence the now-familiar term “gate-to-gate ATM”. But with airport ramp capacity severely limited at a growing number of European airports, the turnaround time matters too. Aircraft hogging a stand become an obstruction – and as the low-cost carriers have demonstrated, aircraft in the air are earning revenue, on the ground they are a cost.

Airports are natural monopolies and, as such, have historically tended to play a rather passive role in the ATM system. This was fine when there was plenty of spare capacity – but not now. Airside director Tim Hardy of London Heathrow – the ultimate in capacity-strapped European airports – speaking at the annual Network Manager User Forum at Eurocontrol’s headquarters in January, noted that it was the first time airports had been “formally invited” to the event – a testimony to the change in attitudes.

Hardy says that if the ATM Master Plan is to be carried out, success depends on co-operation between the Eurocontrol Network Manager and the airports. The Network Manager organisation carries out the tasks that used to be carried out by the central flow management unit – boosted by improved network communications and interactive co-operation between all the operational parties. Essentially it is the co-ordinating point of contact at Eurocontrol for all the stakeholders: civil and military users, air navigation service providers and airports.

Real-time network communication is the essential enabling component. Hardy says there is no point in the airport unknowingly dispatching an aircraft into the air if the ATM system is not ready to accommodate it – and conversely there is no point in the system delivering an aircraft to its destination until it knows the airport can receive it without putting it in a holding pattern. Airport capacity is a growing problem, but if the Network Manager function can integrate the airport operating plan with the network operating plan, it can ensure that the best possible use is made of the airport as part of the total system. The process of precise traffic management will be made easier through the adoption of performance-based navigation systems and enhanced arrival and departure management techniques.

Meanwhile, improvements in routing will continue to produce efficiencies – although at a progressively smaller rate as the system approaches the optimum. Airspace design has yielded about 3% route efficiency improvement annually since 2007, and better flight planning nearly 5% a year. Free route airspace, aimed at all flights above flight level 310 (31,000ft/9,450m), is already available in low-traffic regions like Lisbon, Shannon, Copenhagen and Stockholm. In the busier areas this will still take a while to deliver, but direct clearances are provided wherever possible.

Overall, however, the director of Eurocontrol’s Network Manager, Joe Sultana, is optimistic about SESAR progress, and sees it delivering incremental improvements each year as the new tools and techniques come online.