The predicted failure of governments to invest in future air traffic management (ATM) systems will condemn European and American skies to inefficient operation and increased greenhouse gas emissions. That was the verdict of industry leaders at the ATC Global Exhibition and Conference held in Amsterdam in March.
Co-operation among Europe's air navigation service providers could be the key to progress
Fiscal belt-tightening combined with a lull in traffic growth have removed the sense of urgency that was, a couple of years ago, associated with the drive to implement Europe's Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) programme. Upon SESAR's implementation depends the entire Single European Sky project and the radically changed systems required to drive future ATM advance. The managing director of Aviation Advocacy, Andrew Charlton, makes a challenging allegation: that systems for change such as SESAR and America's NextGen are "stuck on a roundabout", unable to get off.
Eurocontrol director general David McMillan predicts that traffic growth will return. "We need investment," he says. "If we don't get it, we'll have the same system we've got now but with more delays." The USA seems no more confident about investment in its NextGen ATM renewal programme. Rick Ducharme, the Federal Aviation Administration's deputy chief operating officer, asks: "Will we have the political will to think about moving people rather than moving airplanes? I don't know the answer to that." It is important, he says, to remember what a radical change the future ATM systems represent, and that they are needed to provide not only efficiency but also safety, which would otherwise be compromised by the increase in traffic.
All stakeholders need to trust the technology and understand that the new system entails ATM providers, operators and airports changing the way they do business, Ducharme explains, adding: "We are asking controllers to think about fuel burn and carbon emissions," as well as traffic separation.
McMillan stresses the need to convince the politicians and governments of the economic benefits of SESAR, and to persuade them that it is an existing, workable plan. "We need pump-priming money from governments, but we may not get that the way things are," he says. Investment might come from industry, providing investors took a sufficiently long view, because the returns would be "reliable if not exciting".
The then director general of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation, Graham Lake, predicted at ATC Global that countries would continue to think nationally and that "economic necessity [would] drive behaviour". The trouble with that form of motivation is that it is reactive. One way of waking politicians up to systemic inefficiencies, ATC Global's editorial director Philip Butterworth-Hayes suggests, would be to call "ATC delays" precisely what they usually are: system capacity delays.
Matthew Baldwin, the European Commission's director of international transport policy, acknowledges the danger that the system could grind to a halt at a critical moment for the SESAR programme's early implementation phase, and says that legislation may be necessary to drive the programme forward.
Elsewhere, failure to advance because of uncertainty was an issue. Daniel Azema, head of the International Civil Aviation Organisation secretary general's cabinet, says that he could see Asia investing first in advanced ATM. China is a good example: Gao Yi, the deputy director of the Civil Aviation Administration of China's air traffic management bureau, points out that the country plans to open seven new 40-workstation area control centres in the next two years.
China also has the advantage of designing ATM from a clean sheet rather than having to abandon legacy systems and thinking. It has already completed testing of a new ADS-B system for surveillance, and plans to have performance-based navigation in operation at all Chinese airports by 2016. SESAR is a roadmap, says Yi, and China has its own roadmap.
But even in Asia's case, Azema notes, national hesitancy might result from failures to agree global standards and priorities for investment. "Agreement is paramount," he says. China might cover a large area, but its decision-making is all done domestically.
McMillan argues that if all of Europe's air navigation service providers (ANSP) were to agree to co-operate among themselves, they could come up with a common solution and take it to their governments. This way they would probably get the backing they need. He wonders whether lack of action means that ANSPs are more concerned with local self-interest than the future of European ATM.
"Sovereignty does not stop politicians when they can see a viable solution," he adds. "If the industry were to have the courage - which I think they do - to come up with a solution, things could move on."
Jacques Dopagne, director of network management at Eurocontrol, says that all plans have to be based on the needs of the users, and it is that focus that would naturally result in harmonised programmes, delivering predictability of routes and improved co-operation between ANSPs and their syndicates.
Executive director of the SESAR Joint Undertaking Patrick Ky says that the SESAR programme itself is primed for implementation - both in equipment manufacturing and operational terms.
But the director general of the French aviation authority DGAC, Patrick Gandil, seems focused on processes and treaties that would enable existing ANSPs to work together within a functional airspace block like that overseen by the members of FAB Europe Central. The considerable industrial changes demanded by SESAR create a need for social dialogue among FABEC members to arrive at social solutions, he says, labelling the process "a common exercise of our sovereignty".
Technology is not the limiting factor, by the reckoning of Dr Karlin Toner, director and senior staff adviser to the US Secretary of Transportation for NextGen. Rather, change in ATC is something that requires both leadership and cultural collaboration.
As to whether national sovereignty is a force that could prevent co-ordinated action, the head of Eurocontrol's legal services, Roderick van Dam, says that sovereign states are free to decide to adopt "common norms and modes of behaviour", so cross-border law does not need to be an issue. The ICAO convention makes states responsible for seeing that ATM services are provided and regulated within their airspace, but they could both exercise sovereignty and take responsibility jointly.
Able to speak from Airbus's position as a global player - where ANSPs are national or regional - the chief executive of Airbus ProSky, Eric Stefanello, maintains that cultural change is happening. Airbus and Boeing both recognise that the future of ATM is airborne systems, not ground-based technology, and route-maps for change should take this into account. All modern aircraft are completely self-contained as regards navigation, with no need for earthbound systems to tell them where they are or where to go next. Stefanello says that ANSPs and airports should stop investing in ground-based systems. Boeing and Airbus collaborate to ensure that at least this aspect of their systems design and capability harmonised with the needs of a common ATM future.
As regards cultural change, Stefanello notes that states and ANSPs have started to specify performance requirements rather than equipment. He adds that dialogue on ATM within Europe is at an unprecedented level, as is dialogue between the EU and the USA, but also between countries such as Australia and South Africa. Within Africa there are several multi-state ATM projects, notably ASECNA, where 17 states have pooled resources for decades. Amadou Ousmane Guitteye, director general of ASCENA, says that while it is a good system, nothing is perfect: there are still occasionally times when national agendas surface, "usually over the division of resources".
It seems there is no unanimity as to whether future ATM systems are still "stuck on the roundabout" or not. But there were clear pockets of optimism at ATC Global. At the same event in 2011, the talk was exclusively of systems and processes, but in 2012 delegates were at least talking about implementation - even if they were still arguing about how to get it off the starting block.