The visible evidence of advanced aviation policy thinking in north western Europe is impressive. But ideas are not enough.

There is a lot going on in Europe’s top left-hand corner. Preparations to meet the administrative and regulatory requirements of the Single European Sky (SES) in the UK and Ireland are more advanced than in the rest of the continent, even if the equipment and systems specifications are further ahead in a few other countries. Meanwhile, the UK government is – theoretically – trying to sort out its aviation infrastructure policy for the next 30 years and looks likely to do what governments are best at: talking about the problem in hand, ordering endless inquiries and reviews, and doing absolutely nothing while airport slot shortages move toward inevitable crisis.

Starting with air traffic management (ATM) and the SES issues, providing the equipment for the air navigation service providers (ANSP), is, relatively speaking, the easy bit (Flight International, 28 June–4 July). So what are the UK and Ireland actually doing about the SES, will it work, and is it going to benefit them or anyone else?

The UK Civil Aviation Authority has just announced how it is going to check compliance with European SES standards at the country’s main ANSP National Air Traffic Services (NATS) and the other organisations that provide services or information essential to air navigation. The purpose of the checks is to be able to issue European licences to these organisations within a year; licensing for ANSPs has never been required before. The CAA clearly thinks that only minor changes will be necessary among its ANSP organisations to comply with the draft European regulations, but since the licensing regulation has yet to be finalised and is not expected to become law for two or three months, why has the UK agency sprinted off the blocks before the starting pistol has been fired? One answer is that, at this stage, the CAA is only consulting the affected parties on the means of checking compliance – it has not yet started the checks. But perhaps there is more to it than that.

The effect of being among the first organisations in the marketplace with European ANSP licences will be that NATS and the UK suppliers of aviation information services (AIS), meteorological services, and the independent contractors for airport air traffic control will all be in pole position to bid for ATM contracts anywhere in Europe. Political reality being what it is, it does not seem likely that NATS would win the contract to be the ANSP in France, but when Europe starts dividing its airspace into multinational functional airspace blocks (FAB) to meet the terms of reference for the SES, any competent licensed organisation can put in a bid to provide air traffic management in the FAB, and an “outsider” might even be politically better placed to win it than the existing designated ANSPs of any of the individual countries beneath the new airspace block.

Meanwhile, the other early move is the plan for the UK and Ireland to combine their airspace into a single block and, in this case, possibly to design the FAB to be a single unit from ground up, not just an upper airspace block as envisaged in the present SES plans. The feasibility study, commissioned by the Irish Aviation Authority and the UK CAA, reports in detail how it recommends this should best be achieved and, what is more, makes clear the fact that this is achievable and that the potential political and legal barriers to it are far from insuperable. If the UK and Ireland succeed in their aim, and use the plan described in the feasibility study, the FAB will be the first ever to encompass upper and lower airspace, and the first to go into operation since Maastricht was set up by Eurocontrol. If its most optimistic targets are met, it will be working before the Central European Air Traffic Services upper airspace FAB is fully in effect.

So it looks as if the UK and Ireland are getting onto the SES bandwagon early, and will be well placed to take the operational and business benefits that will follow. But they are not there yet. This revolutionary multinational project could fall foul of government inertia – a common fate for air transport strategic plans that are at the mercy of governments, just like the UK government’s policy on the future provision of adequate airports.

The government’s decision in 2000 to review the issue was visionary, as is the White Paper on the subject. But now all the signs are that the action based on it will just not happen until there is a capacity crisis. And that is, unfortunately, always what it takes to make governments act on aviation policy.


Source: Flight International