Europe has a chance to create for the first time a truly harmonised air traffic control network. But will it succeed?

If Europe's air traffic management (ATM) system were to be designed to serve its users' needs best, it would not be the patchwork of part-harmonised national systems it is today. For that reason the European Parliament's first vote for go-ahead on the Single European Sky project is very welcome.

This is only the first hurdle, however. The Parliament will give the bill a second reading in December or January, and before then it will be subject to vetting by the European Council of Transport Ministers. Both organisations have shown approval of the plan in principle. Putting principles into practice, however, may prove politically more difficult, and it will be interesting to see just how much resolve national politicians will have when it comes to facing the decisions which will have to be made. The ship could founder on the rocks of trade union resistance, for example. French air traffic controllers have already had a strike about the principle of the Single European Sky before it had been approved, so how much resistance would there be to a plan to reduce the number of air traffic control centres, for example, setting up fewer but larger ones? That would affect many other employees, not just controllers.

During the parliamentary debate, transport commissioner Loyola de Palacio was careful to emphasise that the reorganisation of air traffic systems authorised by the bill did not imply - or require - that air traffic service (ATS) providers should be privatised. This is not, she emphasised, a licence for "privatisation by the back door". Eurocontrol member states would retain the right to keep ATS provision in the public sector if they wish it, de Palacio made clear. It will be interesting to see the political reaction if one country decides to privatise its ATS and then, following the upper airspace structural redesign that a Single Sky will bring, its contracted ATS provider becomes the controller of a large sector of airspace over a state that opposes privatised air traffic control.

There are so many political complexities yet to face that the parties must not lose sight of the objective and why it is being pursued. Europe's present ATM system is inefficient and, frankly, not as safe as it could be. With all the national and central expertise available to Eurocontrol, there is little doubt Europe has the capability to build a better system.

The system that exists is one in which communications between control centres are less than ideal. If they had been better, the recent collision over southern Germany would not have taken place - German controllers in the neighbouring centre had seen a short term conflict alert giving them 2min warning of the collision risk, but they could not contact the Swiss controller in charge of the two aircraft. An air traffic system that is designed with total teamwork in mind, with all centres working to the same standard operating procedures - which they do not at present - would reduce risks of this type and risks of misunderstanding at handover, and would improve efficiency.

Parliament has understood the essential role of Eurocontrol, which of course would change from being a forum for designing and developing harmonisation in a fragmented system, to being the arbiter of operational procedures, and the organisation that determines equipment specification to ensure total inter-operability. Integration would be a better word, but it seems politically scary at this stage, so people are avoiding it.

Equally, Parliament has emphasised the importance of the infant European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which comes into being in October and will become Europe's aviation regulatory agency. Its legal mandate will be essential in ensuring that the new Eurocontrol, all ATS providers, and all member states work to the same standards and the same rules. In its early stages EASA will only be structured and resourced to rule on airworthiness issues, but the first draft of its mandate to become the operational regulator for Europe is expected to be put before the Parliament next year, so it is progressing toward a vital ability to influence - and then oversee - the common high standards essential to create a Single European Sky.

Parliament is right to emphasise that Eurocontrol and the new EASA hold the keys to quality of the new system. They have at their disposal the best of Europe's considerable national expertise, and politicians must not meddle with the system design detail. If they do, they risk making the new system a cumbersome hybrid instead of a purpose-designed, safe, efficient machine.

Source: Flight International