Central European nations are pushing for a unified ATC system

Julian Moxon/BUDAPEST


The European air transport community is looking to central Europe to provide an example of what Eurocontrol is trying to achieve elsewhere.

The latest step in unifying a large portion of European airspace involves seven historically diverse countries that plan to band together to create the Central European Air Traffic Control System (CEATS). Under CEATS, no national boundaries would exist above flight level 290 (29,000ft/8,850m) over Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, northern Italy, Slovakia and Slovenia.

If CEATS succeeds, almost 40% of Europe's upper airspace - including the Maastricht region over Belgium, northern Germany and the Netherlands - will operate as a seamless entity in 2007. "It encapsulates the notion of integrated airspace management, a cornerstone of the European Commission's 'Single Sky for Europe' approach," says Yves Lambert, Eurocontrol's director-general.

The CEATS idea took root at a 1994 meeting of central European transport ministers. The International Civil Aviation Organisation, Eurocontrol and airlines supported the plan, although it took six more years of haggling before tangible progress was made.

Last June, Eurocontrol - the programme's managing agent - and the seven states agreed to base the upper air control centre in Vienna, the planning and strategy unit in Prague, the simulation and research centre in Budapest and the training centre in Forli (northern Italy).

Zoltan Gati, advisor to the Hungarian transport ministry, a long time supporter of the project, refutes criticism that the system will be too widely distributed across the map. "The fact is, the scarce resources of the CEATS states will be merged. A lot of money could be saved if some of the future national air navigation services assets were better co-ordinated, with centralised facilities where appropriate."

Eurocontrol is conducting its second cost-benefit analysis for the CEATS nations, which takes account of the expected two-year delay in service entry since the first was carried out in 1996. Since that analysis, predictions of air transport growth have risen from 7% to 10%. This increases costs because of the resulting growth in necessary area sectors, from 22 in the earlier study to between 30 and 40.

A fast-time simulation of the CEATS scenario is set for the end of the year, at Eurocontrol's Brétigny centre. Jan Klas, head of CEATS' strategy planning and development unit, says that it "should provide quite a realistic prediction of traffic patterns, but not of the whole working environment". The first real-time simulation is set for mid-2001 in the new Budapest simulation centre.

A key priority is a well-planned transition from the national air traffic control centres to the CEATS system. The national centres, by definition, will have progressively less work as CEATS takes over most tasks. "Downsizing is always painful," Klas says. "We're beginning consultations with national administrations to see what the overall needs are."

Giving up airspace

CEATS airspace will be treated as a continuum, which "we must try and design and sectorise in a way that minimises transition costs and the potential for social difficulties, while gradually providing more freedom of movement", says Klas. The project's credibility depends on individual states' confidence in the planning, "otherwise they simply won't give up their airspace".

While initial operation of CEATS is set for 2007, observers expect that it will be at least 2010 before there is a measurable effect on capacity. Critical to the programme's success, however, will be resolving the question of civil/military co-ordination.

Of the seven countries, Italy, the Czech Republic and Hungary are already NATO members, Slovakia and Croatia have applied to join, Slovenia has yet to apply and Austria is independent. But all belong to Eurocontrol.

The CEATS Group of Senior Officials' first meeting is set for 4 April in Brussels, when the group hopes to set up a civil/military co-ordination group.

A major player in the talks will be Eurocontrol, which, under its forthcoming revised convention, will have a legal framework within which it will have more power. Lessons will also be taken from Hungary, which late last year became the first former Warsaw Pact country to achieve a measure of civil/military co-ordination.

Despite the challenges, optimism for CEATS' future prevails. Failure would mean a huge setback for developing the region's air traffic capacity. "We all know what we want to achieve," says Gati, "and there are many ways in which we might get there. But, in the end, there is no alternative to CEATS."

Source: Flight International