Following a seemingly interminable gestation, the living, kicking Single European Sky has just been born in Rome. Like all newborns it is temporarily useless and helpless, but it is nevertheless the incarnation of parental dreams and embodies massive - yet very fragile - potential.

More than 400 people were present at the SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research) master plan stakeholders forum in Rome to celebrate this nativity, which took the form of the ceremonial delivery of the master plan document, and the official transition from the SESAR definition phase to the development phase. As the UK Civil Aviation Authority's chairman Sir Roy McNulty observed, the definition phase was the easy bit, adding: "Now we have to make it happen."


It is a fearsomely complex programme that relies on incredibly close and detailed co-operation between multiple entities that are not used to co-operating at this kind of level. The entities that will find it most difficult are European Union member state governments. Almost all air navigation service providers (ANSP) and airports in Europe are state- or municipally-owned, and culturally they have also been seen by politicians and citizens alike as being not only a national ultility but also - however mistakenly - as guardians of sovereign airspace.

The process begun in Rome signals the beginning of the end of the national ANSP and the inevitable, revolutionary progress toward a single Europe-wide air traffic management system. It may be a system of many geographically devolved parts located in many states, but it will ultimately behave as a single, organic whole. Eurocontrol director general David McMillan called it a "network of systems".

The culture shock this will cause in most states will be worsened by the fact that they are going to be required to find serious cash for the system upgrade. The forces that will ensure this is done include the second package of SES legislation, now almost ready for presentation to the Council of Transport Ministers in June, which will make it a legal obligation for ANSPs - and therefore states - to meet specific performance levels. This cannot be done without major investment - not something governments are accustomed to making in their ANSP. Existing legislation will prevent them from being able to charge users for investment in the future. Part of the performance levels they have to meet are cost-efficiency targets, and the savings must be passed on to service users.

That's the theory anyway. But parallel with the celebratory atmosphere at the forum in Rome there was a tangible nervousness about two issues: compliance with the SESAR roadmap in terms of timing and meeting performance standards, and funding. Governments that find an EU requirement inconvenient or unpalatable can delay it for a long time even if they are whipped into line eventually. They have to be persuaded that the SES will deliver, and that they will benefit.

McMillan said the system development must "evolve in transparency and partnership", so that stakeholders - and governments - feel part of it. McNulty put his finger on the issue: "Early success will build confidence." It is essential that states see the benefits as quickly as possible, and therefore vital that the new partnership for the development phase - the SESAR Joint Undertaking - ensures visible success early in the project.

Confidence and trust is what governments need to feel towards the SESAR JU and all its stakeholders. Confidence in the JU's competence might persuade them to entrust it, as an expert body, with the programme, instead of indulging in their traditional habits of meddling with local ATM service provision on the one hand and withholding funding on the other.

Indeed there is a solution for governments smarting at the double whammy of gradually losing control over a national ANSP they own, and yet having to invest in it as merges into a European network of systems. They don't have to undergo the pain because there is an alternative, and two European ANSPs have chosen it already. The state can get right out of ANSP ownership and simply discharge the duty it has under the International Civil Aviation Organisation treaty: that of ensuring there is proper ATM provision in their skies, no matter who provides it.

It wasn't long ago that European states thought they had to own their airlines. Provided they see evidence they can trust the system that will replace state ownership of national ANSPs, they may go with it.

Source: Flight International