The European business aviation community is fighting for equal rights to the region's congested airspace and airports

Kate Sarsfield/LONDON

These are challenging times for European business aviation. Stimulated by soaring demand for this increasingly acceptable form of transportation, aircraft sales are up and fleets continue to grow. But operators are running the gauntlet of meeting costly technical requirements to allow them to provide services within the region's congested airspace.

Aircraft failing to meet these demands face exclusion from the flight levels at which they were designed to be operated. This could result in hefty increases in operating costs and possible rises in take-off and landing accidents as the aircraft may be forced to make extra fuel stops. On top of this, the industry also faces the uphill task of gaining access to the key European hubs.

"The situation for aviation in Europe is becoming critical, and extreme measures are being taken to relieve some pressure on the airports and the airspace," says Christos Petrou, head of external relations at Europe's air navigation organisation, Eurocontrol.

In 1995, the Brussels-based organisation, which manages the airspace of the 36 European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) states, forecast that air traffic here would increase by more than 120% by 2015. In a single day, Eurocontrol registers an average of 21,000 flights, excluding military sorties. "Of course, the war in Kosovo has added to the congestion problem, as many flights have to be redirected. Many airports in the region are also handling more traffic, like Skopje in Macedonia, with more than 50 humanitarian flights daily," adds Petrou.

Air traffic within Europe increased by around 6% between 1995 and last year, but by even more - 16% - in Europe's so-called "spaghetti junction", the core area of London, Paris, Frankfurt, Zurich and Milan, says Eurocontrol's Central Flow Management Unit (CFMU). The unit oversees ECAC's 67 air traffic control centres and makes efficient use of ECAC's route networks and airspace. Ian Jones, the CFMU's head of operations, says: "Delays have also risen from between 20% and 30% because of the [Kosovo] war."

In response to the growing congestion, ECAC and Eurocontrol have devised measures "to ease capacity and aid congestion". A key initiative is reduced vertical separation minima (RVSM), set for implementation in Europe in January 2002. The programme, an extension of North Atlantic (NAT) RVSM, which was implemented in March last year following a one-year trial, is designed to give operators more freedom, increase capacity and reduce delays, by reducing minimum vertical separation between aircraft, from 2,000ft (610m) to 1,000ft. NAT RVSM falls between flight levels FL310 and FL390, while in Europe the upper airspace will fall between FL290 and FL410 and include six new levels.

Costly upgrades

To qualify for operation within this airspace, however, operators of older aircraft with analogue navigation systems will have to comply with costly avionics upgrades or face exclusion from the upper airspace. But most business aircraft now being built will be RVSM-compliant.

Although industry on the whole welcomes RVSM, the European Business Aviation Association (EBAA) fears that the requirements will be too costly for some operators, effectively pricing them out of the market.

"We are not Luddites. We need to be consulted so the decision makers understand the implications for the whole of the industry," says EBAA chairman Brian Humphries. The association asserts that NAT RVSM affects only long-range business jets, for which there are already technical solutions. It estimates, however, that of the 1,130 business jets in the European fleet, nearly half cannot be RVSM-approved as they are no longer supported by the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). "Some OEMs will not supply an RVSM kit and issue a service bulletin, because it is often too costly to do so, especially if the aircraft has a low residual value," adds Humphries.

RVSM kits for older aircraft like the Bombardier Learjet 35 can cost up to $700,000, depending on the avionics requirements. Such expense can account for up to 25% of the aircraft's average resale value. Furthermore, RVSM certification represents only a portion of the hefty technical requirements being enforced over the next few years, including 8.33kHz channel spacing, airborne collision avoidance system (ACAS/TCASII version 7); cockpit voice recorders (CVR2); Mode S transponders; and flight data recorders, and, eventually, the enhanced ground proximity warning systems (GPWS), which, combined, can drive up the final bill to more than $1 million.

David Antrobus is managing director of the north of England's largest fixed-based operator (FBO), Northern Executive Aviation, which owns and manages five Bombardier Learjet 35s, each valued at $2-4.5 million, which are being upgraded to meet the new ECAC requirements. "We estimate that each aircraft will cost $675,000 to upgrade. But, while the work is being done, the aircraft can be out of service for up to six weeks, and is therefore losing you a substantial sum of money," he says.

Expensive requirements

Antrobus believes that many of the requirements are unnecessary and expensive, and may force some operators to shut down or refinance their aircraft to fund the upgrades. "We cannot underplay the importance of airborne safety items [GPWS, ACAS] but is there really a need for a digital flight data recorder in an old analogue aircraft?" he asks.

Antrobus, echoing EBAA concerns, questions whether operators will benefit directly in the long term from any cost savings associated with these ECAC initiatives. "Business aviation is almost at the bottom of the pecking order. If we are being forced to spend all this money to upgrade our aircraft, we should be allowed equal access to the airspace and to the airports - we just want to be treated fairly," he says.

The CFMU's Ian Jones claims that equal rights to the airspace exist and no changes are planned for the foreseeable future. "The buzz phrase is 'One Sky for Europe', and the needs of the little guy will always be met," he says.

Eurocontrol admits, however, that even if congestion is reduced in the upper airspace, bottlenecks may still remain in the lower levels and at airport runways and terminals. "Only 20% of delays are caused en route; 80% are airport- or weather-related. Our new ATM2000+ gate-to-gate initiative should help to alleviate this congestion throughout each phase of the journey," says Eurocontrol's Petrou.

The EBAA proposes phased implementation of RVSM over several flight levels, rather then the "big bang effect". This, it claims, will provide additional capacity in the most frequently used flight levels, between FL330 and FL370; tactical implementation on the most congested routes; special operational procedures permitting climbs and descents for non-conforming modern business jets, "which can cruise at altitudes above 41,000ft".

The single biggest threat faced by the business aircraft community in Europe is access to the region's hubs, many of which are faced with severe capacity constraints. In its recent report, the Airports Council International recorded more than 1 million movements in January at its European member airports, an increase of over 3% compared with the same period last year. Coupled with this, passenger numbers grew by around 8% during the same period.

Business aircraft operators, also benefiting from this growth, find it increasingly difficult to co-exist with the airlines. They maintain that airport owners are driving them out in favour of these more lucrative carriers.

Airport owners, especially those answerable to their shareholders, are required to make a healthy profit, and airliners generate more money, not only in higher landing and departure fees, but through the higher volume of passengers' duty-free purchases. At London Heathrow, for example, a typical Boeing 747 movement generates 200 times as much revenue as a that of a business jet.

The EBAA's Humphries says: "We are not in competition with the airlines. We just want a fair crack of the whip and recognition for the valuable role that we play." Humphries is also managing director of Shell Aircraft, which was forced to switch its European operating base from Heathrow to Rotterdam Airport in the Netherlands in 1997, because of the worsening situation at Europe's busiest hub.

Local pressure group Heathrow Executive Jets Operators Association (HEJOA), headed by the UK's largest FBO, Metro Business Aviation (MBA), is fighting a legal battle against the UK Government-appointed slot co-ordinator, Airport Co-ordination, which it claims has introduced an unfair and damaging slot allocation system which is intended to drive out business aviation.

Metro maintains that the new tactical slot procedures contravene European Union regulations and could have Europe-wide implications as the knock-on effect of airport co-ordination could be felt by business aircraft operators across the continent.

Self preservation

HEJOA's fears are compounded by the publication of a UK Government-sponsored report on the state of the business aviation industry in the south-east of England, which represents over 66,000 annual aircraft movements. Although the study is localised, the effects for the European, and even global, business aircraft community are far reaching.

The study predicts that business aircraft capacity at London's major international airports will halve by 2010, which could significantly affect the industry in general and the UK economy in particular.

It adds that, while the business aviation industry provides a valuable contribution in inward investment, it is coming under increasing pressure from the reduction in available slots. For example, it predicts that, between 1997 and 2010, movements at Heathrow will fall from 5,000 a year to 2,000. At Stansted, the movements could plunge from 8,600 to 5,000, dropping again to 1,000 annual movements by 2010.

In March, 16 ad hoc business and airline charter operators at Stansted, again headed by MBA, formed a pressure group to fight for their long-term security at the airport.

"There is no problem getting in and out of Stansted now. We just want to preserve a future for ad hoc operators in 10-20 years' time," says Stansted Ad Hoc Business Operators Association and MBA chief executive Stephen Grimes.

The European Commission has completed its revision on slot allocation at congested hub airports, scheduled for publication in October. There are deep rooted concerns, however, that the report will advocate slot auctions, restricted access and impose a minimum size of aircraft, thereby denying grandfather rights to long established aircraft operators.

Europe's Business Aviation Fighting Force (BAFF), which consists of four leading European trade associations, including the EBAA, was launched last year to lobby decision makers at national and European government level to formalise business aviation access to all the region's airports.

BAFF member and chief executive of the UK's General Aviation Manufacturers and Traders Association Graham Forbes says: "If you are a custodian of a national transportation asset like an airport you have a moral duty to give a mix of access to other users. Access to these airports will always be needed in addition to a range of suitable aerodromes with assured futures."

The business aviation industry accepts that it, too, has a part to play to ensure its long-term security. The EBAA says: "We must be good neighbours and work closely with the aviation industry, governments and local communities - only then can we expect to reach a consensus."

Source: Flight International