Europe has moved a step closer to a system of unified air traffic control (ATC) following an announcement by the European Commission-sponsored group, the SESAR Joint Undertaking, which is responsible for co-ordinating the project, that the first components of the Single European Sky (SES) will be made available before the end of this year. 

SES is a European Commission initiative that seeks to establish a regulatory framework for cooperative ATC management across Europe.  Almost every European country in addition to the 27 EU member states have indicated support for the scheme, as well as numerous states bordering Europe, including Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia.  Since its launch in 1999, participating states have been involved in numerous consultations and negotiations over the SES regulatory package and it is hoped that the key milestones over performance and airspace will be agreed before the end of next year.  The final service level is due to be achieved in 2025.

Whilst the full implementation of SES is still some way off, the SESAR Joint Undertaking's announcement demonstrates the gathering momentum for a collaborative approach to ATC management in Europe.  However, despite the obvious flaws prevalent in ATC management today, there are a number of hurdles that threaten to stall the transition.

Current System

At present, airspace in Europe is generally divided according to national borders and individual states are responsible for their own ATC.  Whilst some cross-border cooperation has started to take place, inefficiencies still pervade this fragmented setup, the causes of which extend beyond the outdated technology currently in use across Europe.

The lack of uniformity over the European ATC management systems means that contact between ATC centres is limited to voice communication only.  As such, coordinating European flight activity can be extremely difficult to manage, particularly during crisis events such as the ash cloud and snow disruption in 2010.  Inefficiencies stem also from Europe's arrangement of airspace.  The arbitrary division of airspace according to national borders does not properly reflect European traffic flow.  Furthermore, vast areas of airspace have been reserved for military use, despite having little practical use today. 

The combined effect of these problems is that airports and flight traffic become congested, causing regular delays in aircraft operations.  Aircraft are often held on the ground to await take off, or worse still, forced to remain in the air as they wait for a runway to clear.  As well as adding to operating costs and consumer dissatisfaction, such delays have a significant environmental impact as aircraft needlessly burn fuel waiting to land.  The SESAR Joint Undertaking estimates that Europe's current ATC system costs between €2-3 billion more each year than other systems in use in the world.  For example, ATC services in the US (which are themselves considered to be outdated) cost 70% less than they do in the UK on average.

Proposed New System

The most significant change that will be effected under the SES regime is the redrawing of European airspace, which will be cut from 67 different zones to 9 'functional blocks'.  The new blocks will be based upon air traffic flow, the aim being to reduce the number of different airspaces through which an aircraft must travel during any one journey.

To add to this, the SES initiative envisages European states 'pooling' their technological resources to develop a high calibre and uniform system of ATC management.  By collaborating in this manner, it is hoped that improvements in ATC management systems can be deployed simultaneously, thereby improving the compatibility of technology between states.  Binding targets for ATC service providers will also be produced, setting standards on capacity, environmental impact, safety and cost efficiency.     

Furthermore, the SESAR Joint Undertaking aims to have flights plans operating to precise 'four-dimensional' trajectories, the fourth dimension being time.  It is hoped that upon full implementation of SES in 2025, the perfect trajectory for each flight across the system will have been ascertained and be available for general use.

Problems

However, whilst a reform of Europe's existing system of ATC is undoubtedly required, a number of potential barriers to the transition to SES lie on the horizon. 

Arguably the biggest stumbling block to date has been getting the members of each of the functional blocks to agree to share responsibility for their ATC management.  So far, just three of the nine blocks have been agreed – the UK and Ireland, Denmark and Sweden, and most recently, the FABREC block (France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Switzerland).  The SESAR Joint Undertaking is aiming to have the remaining six functional blocks agreed before the end of 2012, though in a process fraught with delays, this is increasingly becoming an optimistic target.  For example, the FABREC states initially signalled their commitment to forming a functional block in 2004, yet it was not until December 2010 that an agreement was finalised.  Furthermore, some states (most notably Turkey) remain in talks as to whether they wish to participate in the SES.  With the participating members yet to be finalised and political instability in some of the countries involved, one might conclude that it will be an uphill struggle to have all functional blocks agreed before the end of next year.

At a national level, the participating states must also address the industrial unrest being caused as a result of the move to SES.  The merger of national airspace has raised concerns of job cuts and large-scale relocations amongst ATC staff.  In February last year, flights in France were severely disrupted following a four-day strike by French ATC employees prior to the FABREC agreement being finalised.  Similar action is anticipated across other participating states as they move closer to a functional block agreement. 

The Future

With passenger numbers rising across Europe and airlines coming under increasing pressure to improve the efficiency of their service, a move to the SES regime seems imperative.  Forecasts suggest that current levels of air traffic are set to double by 2020, raising questions as to how long Europe's existing ATC management systems will be able to cope with the surge in passenger demand.  Furthermore, the EASA regulations anticipate the future establishment of SES. 

Less clear is when such change might take effect.  Europe's growing need for a new model of ATC is such that industrial unrest is unlikely to stand in the way of change forever.  However, whilst unlikely to derail the transition altogether, strike action may be enough to slow progress at a national level.  It remains to be seen how this might impact on the SESAR Joint Undertaking's ambitious targets for reform.

What can be said, however, is that the longer the process stalls, the more that airlines and their passengers will miss out.  Reduced journey times, improved safety standards and potentially lower prices should be reason enough to back the move to a single sky.  A uniform European system could also lead to further integration of ATC management worldwide, for example, with China, India, Russia and the US.  Policy makers should endeavour to highlight these benefits at consumer level if they are to sustain the current momentum for SES.