Air traffic control delay in Europe's skies is costing the air transport industry far more than it pays through Eurocontrol into the coffers of national ATC providers. The latter see themselves as accountable for safety, but they are not accountable for the cost, efficiency or quality of service they provide.

That, however, is only one of many reasons why European ATC is failing to meet demand.

When air transport was a young, sparse industry, the safety element provided by air traffic control was all that was needed. Air traffic management (ATM) was not required, because aircraft were occasional blips on a screen, not today's complex pattern of relentless traffic flows in Europe's skies.

The greatest obstacles to ATM efficiency are national borders, which still determine how air routes are organised, how money is invested in ATC services, when (or even if) the policies agreed through Eurocontrol's forum are actually implemented, and who provides the ATC services in given areas. Clearly this is not a perfect template for the provision of an efficient, seamless pan-European ATC/ATM service.

Meanwhile consensus is not easy when the forums are large, with memberships consisting of sovereign political entities with their own political priorities, budgets and constitutions.

Eurocontrol's existence indicates wide acceptance of a need for ATC/ATM co-ordination - it has 28 member states compared with the European Union's 15. And covering all of geographical Europe is the political decision-making body, the 38-member European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC).

Eurocontrol has, since 1990, succeeded in largely harmonising the operations of the national organisations which formerly acted as if they were alone on the planet, and it has put into operation the basic ATM tool, the Central Flow Management Unit. But borders and national priorities are still in place. So for the last three years, with traffic growing within the forecast band, ATC-related delay has spiralled up relentlessly. Now International Air Transport Association (IATA) projections to 2005, assuming median forecast traffic growth and also that existing ATM plans shall be implemented, paint a disturbing picture.

IATA's map of ATC capacity in 2005 shows that nearly half of Europe will have an ATC capacity shortfall greater than 10%, which translates into a 70% increase in ATC delays. IATA concludes that continuing with current plans is just not an option.

The last time Europe's politicians acted on ATC was at a time of crisis - in the summer of 1989. Politicians themselves suffered serious delay whenever they tried to travel by air, and around them at the crowded airports they saw frustrated, angry travellers.

Crisis is a great political motivator. When it occurs, governments feel they have to be seen to be doing something. That time is coming around again for European ATC. What is worrying, from the political motivation point of view, is that although delays are already bad and costly, they perhaps have not yet reached crisis level. Even worse, next year's peak season delays are likely to be less severe than this year's, where the Kosovo military operation was a big factor in worsening 1999 figures. There will, hopefully, be no need for an equivalent military operation in 2000.

On 28 January 2000, ECAC's transport ministers meet to thrash out the shape of Europe's ATC/ATM for the first decade of the new millennium. If they see air transport as economically important, they are going to have to think what, for some of them, has been unthinkable up until now: throw away the concept of national borders for ATC/ATM and think European. Throughout Europe politicians have recognised the need to abolish borders on the ground for practical and trading purposes.

The sovereignty/military argument is spurious and should not be allowed to obscure the issue either. Defence radar and other capabilities, including national expertise, can be retained alongside supra-national ATC/ATM. Let us hope that, on 28 January, Europe's transport leaders can think European in three dimensions, not just two.

Source: Flight International