Emma Kelly/LONDON

Eurocontrol believes that all en route delays in Europe can be eliminated by 2006-8 if states, air traffic service (ATS) providers and operators commit to capacity-enhancing programmes. The agency predicts instead that the future bottleneck in the European air transport system will be airports.

"We expect that through projects in the airspace management and navigation domains, the en route capacity of the European Civil Aviation Conference [ECAC] airspace will grow faster than air traffic, so eliminating en route air traffic control delays within the next few years," says Lex Hendriks, Eurocontrol head of airspace management and navigation. The elimination of all en route delays, however, is dependent on all states, ATS providers and organisations remaining committed to a common approach and sticking to agreed implementation plans - a scenario not achieved before.

European air traffic is growing at an average annual rate of 6%, an increase of 17% since 1997. This year, eight million flights are expected to be handled, rising to 15.8 million by 2020. The average air traffic flow management (ATFM) delay through to October was 3.9mins, compared with 5.3mins for the whole of 1999 - a year "severely distorted" by the Kosovo crisis - and 3.5mins for 1998. The 1997 delay figure was set by ECAC ministers as the target for this year, but so far it has only been met in August, says Tim Guest, head of Eurocontrol's Central Office for Delay Analysis. By year-end the average delay is expected to be 3.7mins.

Eurocontrol's programme for handling the traffic growth is based on improving the system through to 2005, implementing a single seamless system between 2005 and 2010, and introducing new concepts from 2010-2015.

Short, medium and long-term measures have been devised for route network development. In the short-term, route networks are revised on an annual basis.

In the medium term, the ATS route network (ARN) is conducted on five year schedules. Version three - the redesign of sectors in Belgium France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands - continues to next year. It will be followed by version four, to facilitate reduced vertical separation minima. Since 1998, ARN developments have provided 30% more capacity. "Many bottlenecks in Europe are being approached in this way, but now we need a more radical approach," says Hendriks.

Long-term developments, from 2003, centre on free route concepts, whereby above a certain altitude - from FL660 - flights can be freely planned on their most optimum tracks. The pilot project for the concept is at the advanced planning stage for the Benelux states, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, with implementation planned for 2006, to be followed in Central European Air Traffic Services airspace from 2008.

Source: Flight International