Recognising the Single European Sky as a good idea was easy. Making it work is not, especially in the transition from multiple legacy systems

It is all very well conceiving a project like the Single European Sky (SES), and it was a remarkable achievement to win political approval to go ahead with it. But what next? Europe today - from Iceland to Turkey - still consists of 57 air navigation service providers (ANSP) with 75 area control centres (ACC) using "legacy" equipment and operating a system that has remained fundamentally unchanged since the 1960s.

The task ahead is breathtaking in its complexity from all points of view: political, social, technical and operational. Politics and social/industrial issues are still very much present. All the ANSPs are partially or fully owned by governments, even though the governance systems may differ, and in most cases forward investment has to come from government. The equipment they are operating may be "legacy" in the sense that it is designed for the traditional ground-based "command and control" system based on ACCs responsible for aircraft routeing and separation, but in some cases the hardware and software is state-of-the-art and represents recent investment. The staff are almost all government employees. And when the sky is redesigned into "functional airspace blocks" rather than blocks based on national borders, which governments are going to be prepared to delegate control to other ANSPs?

So even before addressing the technical and operational changes needed to overhaul air traffic management (ATM) radically in the next 15 years - which will have to occur if predicted demand for air travel is to be met - the challenges are fearsome.

Eurocontrol has almost completed drawing up its ESARRs (Eurocontrol safety regulatory requirements) to ensure that ANSPs will, in future, all be operating to the same standards, and has enlisted industry co-operation on numerous projects from controller-pilot datalink communications (CPDLC) to surveillance systems. Now industry "stakeholders" - airlines, manufacturers, software specialists and airports - must come on board at some stage and make it all happen.

When the SES was first mooted for political approval in 2003, a group of European manufacturers immediately recognised the opportunities - and the challenges - and joined forces as the Air Traffic Alliance (ATA). The ATA founder members were Airbus, EADS and Thales, but more have joined since, and they were offering expertise in avionics, satellite communication/navigation, ATM systems and aircraft. On 31 March this year, what the ATA describes as an "unsolicited approach" to the European Commission was rewarded with a meeting in the Transport Commissioner's office. The Commission was impressed. In the words of a senior Eurocontrol executive, the ATA has been "very successful in its lobbying", and a project that the ATA has codenamed Sesam was born when it won European Union funding for a two-year "definition phase" in 2005/6. Next in Sesam will come the SES programme phase one between 2007 and 2013, consisting of research and technology (R&T) and validation, and defining the "deployment framework".

The relationship between Eurocontrol and the ATA is going to be crucial in the success of the SES. At present the two sides look as if they are sizing each other up as boxers do, and that is no bad thing. But the ATA admits that if Eurocontrol did not exist, it would have to be invented, and Eurocontrol at some stage has to take a break from planning and work with industry to make the plans happen.

The ATA claims that Sesam "shall be user and customer driven". There is a case for saying that the ATA sees the Commission as the customer, and users have learned from experience that suppliers are not to be trusted when they claim the user's needs are paramount. Meanwhile, there is a tension between the various stakeholders, and the ATA says it sees one of its main tasks as winning "airline and ANSPbuy-in" to the project. This article has already hinted at the issues for national politicians and the ANSP employees as the need for change approaches; but there is a tension also between the airlines who want a safe, working ATM system for the lowest possible user charges and onboard equipment costs, the ANSPs who want the lowest possible hardware and software investment costs with the longest possible return on investment, and the manufacturers who want to make money selling their equipment as widely as they can.

But the SES is a nettle that has to be grasped, and the ATA's energy combined with Eurocontrol sang froid has a chance of making it happen.

Source: Flight International