Europe's general aviation community believes it is a victim of regulators who are unaware of its role in the air transport system or of the wealth it provides

Operators of general aviation aircraft in Europe have become accustomed to widespread industry, political and public apathy as they seek to defend their rights to coexist with commercial airlines and local communities. Unlike their business aviation stablemates, which have the equipment and performance to win much the same privileges as airlines, GA operators face tough challenges, some of which threaten to drive sectors of this industry into extinction.

"There is a lot of ignorance surrounding general aviation. Many people don't understand what it is or does and what its benefits are," says Martin Robinson, chief executive of the UK Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and regional vice-president of the European branch of the International Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (IAOPA), which represents 33 European AOPA affiliates.

GA, which includes aerial work activities such as pilot training, surveillance, emergency medical services, construction and photography, as well as recreational flying, accounts for around 46,000 aircraft in Europe alone. IAOPA says it is an international part of the global transport system and creates hundreds of thousands of jobs and tens of billions of dollars for the countries these activities serve. It adds: "Without this activity, essential transport functions would be eliminated and the opportunities associated with them would be lost to these economies."

IAOPA argues that the needs of this industry to be taken seriously as a worldwide economic driver are largely going unnoticed as increased operating restrictions in the air and on the ground look set to become ever more constrictive.

As part of its Single Sky initiative, the European Commission is pushing for a simplified, harmonised airspace classification across the region to support its Free Flight objective. Eurocontrol, the body responsible for restructuring European airspace, is planning to introduce a two-tier system (controlled - Class C - and uncontrolled) from ground to flight level FL660 (66,000ft/20,000m), and in the process could remove a number of operating freedoms for GA.

Airspace restrictions

It has already been agreed that GA aircraft flying under visual flight rules (VFR) conditions will be banned from 2010 in the 41 European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) member states above FL195, except under exceptional circumstances. Although this rule affects few GA operators, Eurocontrol's next plan is to extend this Class C airspace to FL095, which will have a heavy impact on the community. "We appreciate the airspace system is in a mess and must be reorganised," says Robinson, "but it makes no sense to carpet the whole of Europe with a single category of airspace that will be underutilised." IAOPA says its members should retain the privilege of flying VFR or changing from VFR to instrument flight rules (IFR) and vice-versa in the air, according to the weather. The association also warns the proposed vertical extension will affect flying in mountainous regions.

"We have to find a compromise," IAOPA says, suggesting there are terminal manoeuvring areas within Europe where the bases could be raised further. "Around 30 to 40 miles away from the large airports there are IFR procedures that are not used. We coexist with sectors of the military [NATO], so we have to find a settlement [with the airlines] which does not impact on safety."

These sweeping changes to Europe's airspace will bring added cost burdens to GA operators, not least the mandatory installation of Mode S transponders and 8.33kHz channel spacing VHF radio. The move is designed, Eurocontrol argues, to put in place safety measures as the traffic movements within the ECAC are set to rise from 8 million in 2001 to 16 million in 2020. Continued vertical expansion of 8.33kHz spacing will overcome congestion in the VHF band, it says. IAOPA strongly opposes the recommendations, however, arguing there is no automatic requirement for any change to the current frequency spacing. "The large number of assigned, but unused, channels in Europe casts doubt about the hypotheses that assignable VHF channel shortage is a reality," it says.

For Mode S, the issues are wide-ranging. The system is being planned for deployment, says Eurocontrol, because conventional secondary surveillance radar techniques have reached their capacity limits: "Mode S is therefore a necessity in high-traffic density areas and will form part of the basis of the surveillance infrastructure until at least 2015."

For IFR operators, new production aircraft must be compliant by 31 March 2004 and all retrofits by 31 March 2005. For VFR operators, the compliance date for production aircraft is 31 March 2005 and for retrofits by 31 March 2008. "There is no support for Mode S from the GA community," says Robinson. The GA industry favours the less expensive automatic dependence surveillance - broadcast (ADS-B), which will not be available for air traffic control until 2015.

"Some at Eurocontrol are starting to consider that advanced ADS-B may be the solution in the long term," IAOPA says. "The decision to push ahead with Mode S is political. It is a European-led programme and is good for the industry and employment. If there was a decision to push ahead with ADS-B at global level, an advanced system could be available a lot earlier and at an affordable price." The cost of installing 8.33kHz is around €2,900-8,700 ($3,120-9,350) and Mode S around €8,700. "This is more than the value of some aircraft. Older types which don't have the power source could become obsolete," Robinson warns.

VFR operators, he says, pay a levy on fuel which is rarely ploughed back to support the GA infrastructure and, on top of this, the new airspace and equipment proposals will force many operators to pay for a service they do not need. Most will have to bear this burden as a direct operating cost.

The European GA community is calling on Eurocontrol to conduct traffic simulations assessing the impact of VFR flights at FL195, FL135, FL110 and FL095 and to support their proposals with a cost versus benefit study. "IAOPA supports the harmonisation of airspace categories and the rules applied, but firmly believes that three or four ICAO airspace categories are required to meet the diverse needs of all airspace users." Since the infrastructure is designed primarily for airline and military interests, IAOPA suggests GA should be viewed as marginal users of the system and charged accordingly. Ideally, very marginal users such as gliders, ultralights and lightweight home-builds with little or no avionics and that typically only fly locally should be exempt from all charges, it says.

Eurocontrol says it understands the GA community's concerns: "The income levels of general aviation operators are much lower than those of airline and charter operators, and the costs of additional equipment required for ATM purposes could quickly outweigh any benefits that they may realise, thereby threatening their viability."

Airport access

While the GA supporters tackle the airspace threat, another battle is raging on the ground. Closures, airport bans and hostile neighbours continue to hit GA hard across the region's airports and the problem sees no sign of abating. Recent casualties include Athens Hellinikon, the only suitable airport within 460km (250nm) of the Greek capital, Switzerland's Ascona airport and eight out of 14 aerodromes in south-east UK.

David Ogilvy, vice-president of the UK's General Aviation Awareness Council (GAAC) says regional airports, in their quest to make a profit, pose one of the greatest threats to the GA community. "We have already been moved out of the major hubs like [London] Heathrow, and now some regional airports have taken a particular dislike to GA, particularly flying training."

UK airports, such as Newcastle, are trying to discourage users by imposing hefty landing charges and operating restrictions, leading to a hike in training costs. Elsewhere, smaller aerodromes often situated on prime real estate are being sold to make way for car factories, housing estates and quarries. "GA is by far the largest sector of aviation, with more aircraft, more flyers and more operating sites than any other area," says Ogilvy.

London-based GAAC is concerned that the aviation community is generally unsupportive of GA. "While GA benefits the local community by bringing trade and employment, the commercial air transport world depends on GA for its long-term future. Around 70% of new pilots which enter the airlines have come through the club or private flying route. If the airlines are dependent on GA, so are the airports, because the airports are no good without airlines," adds Ogilvy.

The European GA community is pushing for assured rights under European regulations. "GA can only succeed if you have a broad geographical spread of airports and aerodromes. If you are a custodian of a national transport asset [airports], you have a moral duty to give a mix of access to other users," says Graham Forbes, chief executive of the UK General Aviation Manufacturers and Traders Association.

For Robinson, an interesting picture is emerging in Europe. "While regulators say we must consider the needs of all users of the air transport system, we have yet to find one example where GA is the winner," he says.

Source: Flight International