Traffic Dip Buys Time As Single European Sky Falls Behind On Key Goals

Farnborough Air Show » 2012
July 9, 2012, 3:20 AM

The reality is pretty obvious: managing fewer flights can only help European air traffic control meet the tough targets that were designed to prepare it for a wholesale transformation to a radical space-based regime. The latest statistics show that Europe-wide, the en-route delay in 2012 is now 0.45 minutes per flight–well down from the figure last year of 1.1 minutes and already lower than the 0.5 minutes target for 2014.

The traffic growth curve has moved most definitely to the right by several years and the region’s air navigation agency Eurocontrol reckons that it will take until 2014 for Europe to get back to the traffic levels it saw back in 2007. But does the prospect of a double-dip recession mean a respite for Europe’s air navigation service providers (ANSPs) during a watershed year that sees both the introduction of binding performance targets and the creation of functional airspace blocks (FABs)?

Not really, said David McMillan, Eurocontrol’s director general, who believes there is a balance to be struck between running an efficient and, crucially, a safe service; and, on the other hand, responding to the pressure on costs, not just from the European Commission but also from the airspace users and, indeed, the owners of the ANSPs. According to McMillan, matters will not get any easier as the implementation of new satellite-based technologies gathers speed over the next few years.

For airlines, it’s a simple case of European states–the owners of the ANSPs–using the excuse of the current economic crisis as a means to stall the Single European Sky (SES) project. They bitterly complain that Europe’s fragmented air traffic management system continues to have a devastating impact in terms of time, fuel burn and money. Their chief complaint is that nothing has really changed since the European architects of the SES drafted the original timetable that would frame the deployment of space-age technologies that could transform air traffic across the continent.

Performance Targets

As part of gearing up for that deployment, European governments several years ago agreed to some pretty tough performance targets for their national providers. Those performance targets remain an integral part of the Single European Sky Package II (SES II) approved by the European Union’s Transport Council in March 2009.

Between 2012 and 2014, each state is supposed to achieve specific targets for reducing excess miles flown, reducing air traffic delays per flight and reducing the cost of managing air traffic by 50 percent by 2020. Alongside improving cost efficiency, the SES also aims to increase airspace capacity by more than 70 percent, improve the safety record by a factor of 10 and reduce the effects of air transport on the environment by 10 percent.

Eurocontrol duly went about creating a performance review body (PRB) to measure and monitor how these targets were being fulfilled, publishing performance in annual review reports.

The bad news came out at the end of November. Member states had delivered their plans to the European Commission in June. They were subsequently analyzed by the PRB over the summer. Reports indicated that the ANSPs were barely achieving cost containment, let alone the targeted reductions.

Based on this, the Commission’s November assessment was that only five small countries–Belgium, Denmark, Lithuania, Luxembourg and the Netherlands–were on track to meet both cost efficiency and punctuality targets. The big hitters responsible for the lion’s share of air traffic–Britain, France, Germany plus Austria and Spain–were singled out as having dragged their collective feet and ordered to present more ambitious plans before the end of December.

So What Is the Problem?

“Outmoded labor practices are certainly one cause of high cost and low productivity. But another is certainly the huge oversupply of airspace sectors and control centers in Europe, dictated by having an ANSP for every country,” said industry observer Bob Poole. “That’s something the Single European Sky is supposed to be fixing, but progress here has been glacial.”

The European airline industry, meanwhile, points the finger of blame squarely at European member states. “Airlines need urgent deliverables. Member states must stop procrastinating and make progress toward a genuine Single European Sky,” said Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus, the then-secretary general of the Association of European Airlines. Three more airline associations–ELFAA, ERA and IACA–echoed the plea, accusing EU nations of trying to escape their SES commitments.

The rate of progress of FABs has come under fire, too. Originally conceived as a means to help make the air traffic management industry in Europe more efficient and bring down costs to something closer to the levels seen in North America, the jury is still out. Observers say it is too early to determine the impact of a double-dip recession on their development.

One thing is for sure. Airlines are still waiting for the meaningful emergence of unified airspace that straddles European borders and they see the concept as mere window dressing.

“It is important that the public knows that there are no insurmountable technical obstacles to the early implementation of the Single European Sky: speedier progress is constrained only by lack of political will,” insisted Mike Ambrose, the outgoing director general of the European Regions Airline Association.

The Big Five

The real story is with the “Big Five” ANSPs–Germany, the UK, France, Italy and Spain– according to IATA chief Tony Tyler. “Being responsible for 54 percent of the costs of air navigation services in Europe, the success of the performance scheme is dependent on these states meeting their share of the required cost reductions with no shortfall,” he said.

The PRB’s damning report also noted that that six performance plans (Austria, Greece, Poland, Spain, the United Kingdom and the FABEC region covering Germany, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland–were failing to make adequate contributions to meeting the EU-wide capacity target.

“If the European ANSPs cannot meet modest short-term goals, then there is no chance of meeting the significantly more ambitious but necessary targets that are required for the second phase of the performance scheme between 2015 and 2019. States and ANSPs need to close the gap and return to course,” said Tyler.

At risk, transport commissioner Siim Kallas believes, is the credibility of the SES project with failure to take measures at the national level potentially forcing Brussels to re-open the dossier and instigate a far more radical solution.

Airlines don’t actually know if the Commission warning of “specific corrective measures” was heeded. Much has taken place behind closed doors in what one can only imagine as stern but tedious knuckle-rapping sessions delivered by Brussels bureaucrats–at least so far.

“The European Commission has said it will not accept a suboptimal result, but, in that case, it may find itself having to take more direct action and drive a more top-down approach, something it has instinctively avoided so far,” said McMillan.

For its part, the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO) is calling on European states to provide critical political leadership and address what it sees as the key issues delaying progress toward achieving a Single European Sky.

At the top of its wish list is for Brussels to offer critical guidance on defining a system approach to a future SES together with adequate implementation arrangements.

Along with transitional financial support, it also wants to see an industry-led deployment manager in the driver’s seat that would work with the ANSPs to steer advanced technologies and operational procedures in a timely, synchronized and cost-effective way. Also at issue, CANSO insists that the necessary institutional reform of Eurocontrol–now designated as Europe’s network manager–is vital if a true Single European Sky is to be achieved.

Interestingly, CANSO is also calling for an up-to-date traffic forecast by February 2014 to assess whether EU-wide targets need tweaking in the next, more demanding phase of the SES performance scheme. “This would prevent a situation arising as it did in [the first phase], where, due to the negative economic environment and high traffic instability, performance plans and EU-wide targets were not consistent with the latest traffic projections,” stated the organization.

So is the Single European Sky still on track despite, or maybe because of, a slowdown in traffic?

McMillan believes that in some key areas the downturn has bought some a little more time but he pointed out that the financial challenges are becoming even harder to overcome with a real need to remain focused on the goal and on the benefits that a truly Single European Sky can bring. Even so, he said, Europe will need to ensure that improvements are deployed when, but only when, there is a real network benefit.

“That means using all the tools we have–whether it’s regulation, innovative financing or plain and simple communication–to make sure that everyone–ANSPs and airspace users–acts with the benefit of the whole network in mind rather than just their own part of that network,” McMillan concluded.

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