Long-term solution toward Single European Sky
Wednesday 12 May 2010
As officials draw the lessons of the paralysis of air traffic caused by the cloud of volcanic ash that drifted over European territory from Eyjafjöll, Iceland, Commissioner Slim Kallas is expected to remind the Union’s 27 transport ministers, meeting on 4 May in Brussels, of the urgent need to complete the SESAR programme, the technological component of the Single European Sky project
(1). Launched in the middle of the last decade, SESAR is aimed at bringing about a major technological leap in the management of ever expanding air traffic while strengthening safety, optimising flight paths, reducing congestion and noise in and over airports and cutting fuel consumption and consequently polluting gas emissions.
The European Commission’s launch of the single sky concept, in 1999, was aimed at abolishing or at least reducing legal and administrative barriers created by EU member states’ attachment to their sovereignty over air space, particularly due to the military aspect. The shift, by 2012, from control by each of the 27 of their portion of air space to control of larger zones, ie nine functional air space blocs (FABs) determined on the basis of traffic rather than national borders, will represent undeniable progress.
The FABs will nevertheless initially be managed technically the same way air space is managed today, ie ground-based controllers will divide up the blocs into parcels in which traffic is monitored and managed based on radar information transmitted by VHF radio to pilots. These two technologies date from the 1940s and 1950s. They are obviously tried and tested, and are still indispensable, because whatever aircraft they are using, pilots would be ‘blind’ without these data. However, they are in large measure obsolete in this age of internet, wireless phones and satellite positioning.
Schematically, flight paths are established by linking the successive points at which aircraft are guided by ground-based controllers from their point of entry in a bloc up to their entry into the next. This results in zigzag, predefined paths, virtual tracks, from which aircraft must not deviate to avoid all risk of midair crashes. These constraints can lead traffic managers, in the event of weather problems on a given flight path for instance, to decide to shut down the air space concerned and oblige the pilot to head towards a different airport.
In the same circumstances, US controllers, who have the same tools as the Europeans, inform pilots but give them responsibility for deciding whether or not to keep to the flight path, skirting the obstacle as best they can. The experts suggest that US pilots and air traffic controllers are probably more accustomed than the Europeans to extreme weather events (cyclones, tornadoes, etc) and that there is consequently a more highly developed risk culture in their approach than on the Old Continent.
COMBINING SAFETY AND EFFICIENCY
SESAR will lead to air traffic management somewhere between these two extremes. The new technologies will allow for considerably more precise air traffic management, freeing flights to a large extent from the present-day concept of flight paths. In the event of natural or accidental events (eg a chemical cloud), it will not automatically be necessary to shut down all air space as was decided by practically all the EU states as soon as the risk posed by the volcanic cloud had been identified.
On the basis of available information, it would have been possible to organise a large number of flights with secure itineraries on the edges of the zone identified as dangerous. The volcanic cloud would have had a much more limited economic and social impact on airlines, airports, tour operators, the tourism sector, passengers and companies who had to do without staff members.
MAJOR TECHNOLOGY PROJECT
The Commission drew policy makers’ attention to the urgency of modernising air traffic management tools in Europe long before the recent air space crisis. In a 2005 communication, it stated that the reliability and safety rates for air transport, “if maintained, require a qualitative leap for the future as the capacity limit becomes critical”.
The SESAR system is the answer that the EU has chosen, in cooperation with Eurocontrol. The European Council identified the project as one of the “projects of common interest” for infrastructure to be implemented. SESAR is the technological component of the Single European Sky, adopted in March 2004. Its aim is to replace the tools of another era with a range of advanced technologies, both on-board and on the ground, covering digital communications, IT and radionavigation through ground-based infrastructures and satellites.
This package of intelligent systems will aim to 1. give all air transport actors all the real-time data necessary for information and decisions; 2. relieve controllers of certain mechanical tasks (reciprocal identification with the pilot, exchanges of databases, etc) so that they can concentrate more on management and thus ensure greater safety for the flights under their control; 3. reduce pilots’ dependence on following instructions from successive air traffic controllers using communications that are often of poor auditory quality; and 4. allow aircraft to take optimal flight paths with precise timing, determined by the full set of data collected and processed on an ongoing basis, saving time and fuel and reducing pollution and noise.
SESAR is meant to increase safety by a factor of ten in a context of a possible doubling of traffic in 20 years, to reduce fuel consumption (by 300 to 500 kg per flight) and to lessen environmental impact (by 945 to 1,575 kg).
SUCCESSFUL PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP
The system will be implemented by SESAR Joint Undertaking, set up by the Commission and Eurocontrol and steered by Executive Director Patrick Ky. Implementation is expected to include three phases:
Definition phase (2005-2007, already completed), which resulted in an ATM master plan that sets out the different technological stages, priorities and timetables, adopted by the EU Council in May 2009
Development phase (2008-2013) dedicated to the development of the basic technologies on which the new generation of systems will be based
Deployment phase (2014-2020), which will see “large-scale installation of the new systems and widespread implementation of the related functions”.
The development phase has a budget of €2.1 billion contributed in thirds by the EU, Eurocontrol and undertakings in the aviation field, including air navigation service providers: DSNA (France), DFS (Germany), ENAV (Italy), NORACON (Northern Europe and Austria), AENA (Spain) and NATS (En Route) Limited (United Kingdom); manufacturers of airborne equipment: Thales and the American firm Honeywell; ground and aerospace manufacturing industry: Frequentis, Indra, Natmig, SELEX Sistemi Integrati, Thales; aircraft manufacturers: Airbus and Alenia Aeronautica; and airports: SEAC (a consortium of six airport operators: ADP, BAA, Fraport, Munich, Schipol & Unique), AENA and NORACON.
CHALLENGE OF DEPLOYMENT PHASE
The deployment phase is scheduled to start in 2013. The Commission will therefore present to the Council and the European Parliament, by the end of 2010, a communication outlining possible ways and means to finance phased-in implementation, until 2025, of these intelligent systems in aircraft, control centres and airports.
Implementation represents a huge financial challenge, especially in today’s economic context. With a total investment of some €30 billion, SESAR represents the most costly technological programme ever developed by the EU. The investments will be staggered over the entire deployment period and will be co-funded by industry.
A large share of the investments related to installation of the new equipment in aircraft is expected to be covered by the owners, ie the airlines. Considering the amounts involved and airlines’ balance sheet situation, they will certainly carry out stringent cost-benefits estimates before making commitments. It will be tempting not to equip aircraft close to their end of life, or even mid-way, thus creating the obligation of the coexistence of the new systems with today’s instruments and procedures during a certain period. Aid possibilities, direct or otherwise – eg EIB-subsidised bridging loans, allocation of proceeds from the sale of aviation pollution allowances, etc – are conceivable ways of removing this obstacle. Other means – such as reserved access to major airports from a given date to ‘SESAR-equipped’ aircraft – could be implemented to accelerate the technological switchover.
Airports and ground control bodies will also have to invest. Here, too, different financial solutions are possible, combining private and public funds (including military budgets, which some experts say could contribute €7 billion by virtue of the ‘Europeanisation’ of military manoeuvre air space). It is also hard to imagine that the EU budget would not be called upon to contribute to a project with supranational aims: safety, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, development of technological innovation and creation of knowledge and jobs.
GLOBAL COMMERCIAL BATTLE
This innovation, of course, encompasses investments made prior to and subsequently in the framework of SESAR by a large number of European firms, which count on selling their equipment and services in the EU, but also and most importantly beyond Europe’s borders in order to make a return on their outlay. However, these sales ambitions outside of Europe are likely to run into a problem, namely the fact that their American competitors are counting on doing the same thing with the launch of a similar project, known as NextGen.
The US government recently decided to grant federal funds to support this programme – US$1.1 billion in 2011 – stating clearly that NextGen is meant to maintain the superiority of American air traffic management technologies. Washington has signed cooperation agreements with China and India, two large emerging economies interested in skipping a stage in the modernisation of their management tools for their fast-growing air traffic by adopting the latest technologies.
SESAR is meant to increase safety by a factor of ten in a context of a possible doubling of traffic in 20 years(1) See www.sesarju.eu