Europe's latest crisis in air traffic control looks unlikely to be its last unless the region faces up to the need for long-term solutions.

Air traffic control (ATC) authorities have been forced to resort to crisis management. At the route of the problem is the patchwork nature of the European ATC systems with differing standards, procedures and equipment: So ran another weary warning from the Association of European Airlines (AEA) as European delays soared to new heights.

But what is really sad about this plea is that it was not made last month, as delays reached new peaks. Neither was it made last year, when it became obvious that delays were beginning to peak. It comes from more than a decade ago; made in 1988 when ATC last put European skies on course for gridlock.

What is most sad is that all of the criticisms that the AEA made then are still valid now. European airspace is still controlled by an inefficient jigsaw of national systems. The infrastructure is still inadequate and the ATCs are still having to firefight. The solutions, too, remain the same: a single system, co-ordinated by a single authority and above all adequately funded.

Admittedly, this year's crisis does come with some mitigating circumstances in tow. The war over Kosovo severely restricted major areas of neighbouring airspace. Other sectors were tied up by the reorganisation that Eurocontrol is initiating to squeeze out a few more drops of capacity growth. Europe's traffic growth has also been higher for longer than many expected. In the early 1990s it was the collapse of the world economy and therefore traffic growth which ultimately did most to get ATC back on an even keel.

But such excuses miss the fundamental point that Europe is at breaking point. Jonathan Howe, director general of the Airports Council International (ACI), bluntly pointed out as much in a recent broadside. Among other things, he notes that delays were already critical in March before the bombing started in the Balkans.

He adds that if the experience so far this year were to continue a steady path, networks would head towards breakdown within the next couple of years. Given that delays grow exponentially as traffic is added to an overburdened system, the deadline would be much sooner.

In reality, of course, Europe will muddle through on a wing and a prayer as it always has, albeit against the backdrop of howls of protest from passengers, airlines and airports. But even if it does, can Europe really live with an ATC system which is betting on the vagaries of the economic cycle, permanent peace in the Balkans and the firefighting ability of its staff to keep one step ahead of gridlock?

Perhaps a better question is why it should have to, when the solution of a single system has been clear for more than a decade? Europe already has a purpose-built body in the shape of Eurocontrol, but it remains a loose coalition without any real teeth to impose solutions on national ATCs. In Howe's neat phrase, Eurocontrol is neither European nor controlling.

National politics and quibbles over sovereignty have headed off previous attempts to give Eurocontrol the teeth of a European institution. Perhaps the new Transport Commissioner, due to take her place in Brussels shortly, may finally navigate through the fog of past compromise. On past performances that remains a long-shot.

While an empowered Eurocontrol would go some way towards resolving the needless inefficiencies and bottlenecks that clog the system, it alone would not be enough. Investment is crucial, too. Any airline which believes otherwise need only listen to the current groans from their transatlantic cousins about a US system which is centrally managed but under-resourced. Fees meant to pay for the system all too often end up padding government coffers.

After a decade arguing a seemingly hopeless case for a single system, the AEA itself is beginning to question whether its time may instead be better spent pushing for greater commercialisation. It could, for example, create a market in which the best resourced and most efficient ATC services could pick up additional business or bid to take over functions from their neighbours. There is no hard technical reason why this could not happen. Such a market would naturally need tough safety oversight and careful management, but then air transport is used to that.

Perhaps the very prospect would be alarming enough to persuade some of Europe's more nationally minded states that the idea of a more powerful Eurocontrol is not so bad after all. Perhaps even charges might begin to relate to levels of service. That, perhaps, may be too much to hope for even after a decade.

Source: Airline Business