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Environment: One Track Mind

It is a critical year for the Single European Sky as performance against targets continues to slip.

It’s a tempting prospect; harmonized airspace that would save some 16 million metric tonnes of CO2, cut air traffic costs in half, increase capacity, and enhance safety.

Yet the Single European Sky (SES) has barely made it off the drawing board in over 20 years. The last report from the EC Performance Review Body (PRB) revealed that most countries will fail to meet the necessary contributions to the EU-wide 2012 through 2014 cost-efficiency target of 3.5% per annum. The European-wide capacity target of an average 30-second delay per flight by 2014 also looks unachievable. Moreover, only one out of the nine proposed Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs) is making progress in unifying European airspace. All FABs are due to be online by the end of 2012 and the EC has set a deadline of 24 June 2012 for the nine FABs to provide details of their plans.

This is the first reference period under the SES Performance Scheme legislation and its success or failure will set the precedent for all future reference periods. If the shortfalls are not remedied by the European Commission, the Performance Scheme will lose credibility.

“SES is falling at the first hurdle,” says Hemant Mistry, IATA Director of Industry Charges, Fuels and Taxation. “There is a lack of commitment from countries and air navigation service providers (ANSPs) to drive real SES benefits. It is especially worrying for European airlines where the high air traffic control unit costs are largely driven by the fragmentation between ANSPs.”

Window dressing

It’s not just the fact that the FABs are falling behind schedule–what is being offered by them has also been watered down. “We’re simply redrawing boundaries,” says Mistry. “It’s window dressing. To enable the benefits of SES, you need FABs to be set-up properly from the outset. We need wholesale reform and FABs that are based on traffic flows and the operational requirements of the airspace. We could simply improve cooperation to make the same gains on offer in the current FAB set-up.”

Mistry doesn’t believe the Network Manager, Eurocontrol, will be able to rectify the situation single-handedly. “They can suggest changes in response to specific issues,” he notes. “But it isn’t enough. We need change on a completely different scale.”

The requirement from the beginning should have been the complete integration of ANSPs within FABs, in effect making it one operating company for each FAB. A single approach to airspace provision would create the efficiencies desperately needed. Now, if one ANSP has excess resources they cannot be transferred to a partner ANSP that may be lacking in resources—even if both ANSPs are part of the same FAB.

“The requirement is to optimize airspace as well as human and technical resources,” says Robert Tod, IATA Director for Safety, Operations and Infrastructure in Europe. “The practical activities that achieve these goals are common airspace design along major traffic flows, service and maintenance consolidation, and joint infrastructure planning with no sovereign duplication.”

Each of the 27 EU member countries has its own ANSP and airspace is further divided into flight information regions (FIRs). In all, there are 67 distinct airspace divisions in Europe. It’s a very costly confusion. The Civil Air Aviation Navigation Services Organization (CANSO) estimates airlines pay an average $708 per flight in Europe, compared with $429 in the United States and just $297 in Canada.
European inefficiency, it would seem, is being rewarded. There is a concern that ANSPs—understanding that the longer aircraft are in the air, the more they get paid—lack the incentive to improve. This, coupled with a political desire to keep control of national airspace, could account for the alarming lack of progress.

“The solutions are there and well understood,” says Mistry. “The worrying problem is that they aren’t being adopted.”

Cost reductions

There are some positive signs, however. The FABs are now starting the regulated consultation process and this greater transparency should provide an opportunity for airlines and other stakeholders to provide the input that is so clearly needed if improved cost effectiveness and flight efficiency is to be achieved.

The one FAB that has made progress planned to do so outside of the FAB framework anyway. The Nordic Unified Air traffic Control (NUAC), a blend of the Danish and Swedish ANSPs, proves that getting the governance correct from the start is critical.

Bo Pedersen, Director of Communications at Naviair, the Danish ANSP accepts that shaving 6km off the average  flight in Danish airspace does impact that particular revenue source. But the cooperation with Swedish LFV has triggered about $17.3 million (EUR13 million) in savings. Free Route Airspace (FRA) in the area has also brought considerable benefit to airline clients and the environment. Pedersen calculates an annual saving in the region of 10 million liters of fuel and 50,000 metric tons of CO2.

“Apart from NUAC efficiencies and synergies, we are also harvesting cost reductions through our partnership in the COOPANS alliance,” Pedersen says. “We estimate reductions in our technical development costs of 30%. On top of that, we also have reduced our training cost around 15% through our Entry Point North partnership.”

Blinkered view

NUAC will soon be the first fully integrated European company owned by two ANSPs. It will operate the three Air Traffic Control Centers (ATCCs) in Denmark and Sweden. Other deals are reputedly on the horizon. DFS, Germany’s ANSP, is interested in acquiring an ownership stake in NATS, the UK provider; there is talk of an integrated provider called Borealis, made up of Estonia, Finland, Latvia, and Norway, as well as NUAC and the FAB of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The question now is whether this is too little, too late. The European Commission admits there have been “insufficient steps” towards cross-border air navigation service provision. This lack of interoperability has created higher costs and restricted the mobility of air traffic controllers.

“The problems are not going to fix themselves,” says Tony Tyler, IATA Director General and CEO. “Airlines have invested in aircraft and technology to operate at the highest levels of efficiency—often times ahead of what ANSPs are capable of. And we are ready to help drive efficiencies further.

“But it is the responsibility of states to ensure that their air navigation service providers are delivering what is needed. This is a make-or-break year for SES.”

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