On safety, says Bo Redeborn, EUROCONTROL currently has one major focus: runway control. The organisation is homing in on ATM operations and systems, which are used to record deviations from given clearances, and straying vehicles or aeroplanes behaving in a strange way in reduced visibility.
"This is the real safety issue. And how we overcome the problem is to provide simplifications in design, better situational awareness to the controller and the cockpit, together with better signals, bars, lights or any tool that could help guide aircraft more efficiently."
Historically, ATC has not managed time very well, says Redeborn.
"It has basically been a three-dimensional business where you try to keep aircraft apart. If you have a low density of traffic, this works perfectly, because you only intervene when you have to turn or change a level. However, if you get to a very dense environment, this becomes complicated and inefficient, which is why better allocations are necessary.
"The way the slotting currently works is not the most efficient method, because you typically get a 15-minute window. If everybody tries to arrive at the beginning of that window, then you have seven or eight aircraft turning up at the same time. This is why we are trying to use smaller windows, so that we can dynamically define, on the day of operation, a window of around two minutes or so. Then you will have a more time-ordered and time-driven system."
On arrival, the aim is to cut out stacking, have immediate and continuous descent, and once a flight has touched down, immediate movement to a parking place or a gate without the aircraft having to wait on the tarmac with engines running. Equally, on departure, engine start-up will not be permitted until an almost immediate take-off with a continuous climb out to cruising level is possible. En route aircraft would absorb any delays ahead by increasing cruising speed.
Looking towards Europe
To boost overall European ATM performance, EUROCONTROL is driving the introduction of a range of new systems and technologies which, explains Redeborn, need to tick two key boxes. Any innovation has to add value to performance, and so makes sense in business terms. Meanwhile, however complex the underlying data, emerging IT systems must present information in a simple and "human" way, both to the cockpit and the tower.
Operationally, says Redeborn, it is always important to promote best-in-class airports, such as Stockholm, with its ability to execute continuous descent, or the efficiencies achieved by Munich's collaborative decision making, or Gatwick's optimum use of a single runway for 45 movements an hour.
On the European side of things, changes in ATC systems, technologies and regulations require consensus among member states. Even then, supposedly mandatory developments such as Mode-S have not been adopted across the board. This year, EUROCONTROL sought approval of members to pick up the role of network management.
"Within that task, there is also the intention that we should identify bottlenecks and other shortcomings, and try to encourage those that can do something about it to improve," says Redeborn. "If that is not done, we should also monitor and report the continued existence of these shortcomings in the system.
"There are certain states and airports that also stand out for generating most of the delays. So it is not an evenly spread shortage of capacity; it is a few bottlenecks across Europe that generate problems for the whole system," says Redeborn, reflecting on the experience of the 2010 volcanic ash cloud.
"That is why it needs to be addressed at network level, because of the upstream and downstream impact it has when some of the partners do not work properly and do not deliver the capacity that they have committed to.
"People need to understand that decisions should be taken with a more far-reaching perspective than just trying to solve your own problem, and in doing so, exporting that problem to a neighbour."
Redeborn describes EUROCONTROL's function as a 'continuous mechanism'.
"We will try to deliver network management, in particular, making sure that the correct information is passed on to those that need it. We had a little bit of practice during the volcanic ash crisis, even though the performance of the system was not that good. At least we got some positive feedback for providing people with the correct information."
Redeborn believes that before the 2020 target date, the Single European Sky ATM Research Programme (SESAR) will capture the most European air movements, especially for commercial traffic in six years' time.
"The result will be that anyone authorised will be able to look at the entire European picture, not just the present but the historical picture and the anticipated future picture."
Some of this data is already available but delayed. More work is being done on the system's security, and there are also debates about ownership and intellectual property rights to some of the information.
EUROCONTROL has long had access to all the flight plans since flow management was centralised. It is now getting radar data from some parts and departure messages from all over the continent.
United with the States
Redeborn maintains that there are no conflicts between the European programme and its US counterpart NextGen as some of the issues each addresses are different. US congestion, for instance, occurs in the New York, Washington and Boston triangle, with many airports located close together.
The weather en route is also a challenge in the States, whereas in Europe it is weather conditions at airports. In contrast, the US does not have the airspace fragmentation, which is a key challenge in Europe.
Broadly speaking, he says, the two continental systems are moving in the same direction in terms of the future operations, trajectory, time-based considerations and the sharing of information through system-wide information management. However, there are divided opinions, which is hindering compatibility. On navigation and the interchangeability of data, agreement does not appear difficult.
The sticking point remains the actual data link.
"The fact that we still haven't reached an agreement is the biggest embarrassment for ATM," says Redeborn. "I do not know the reason why, but it has been extremely difficult. There will be an Air Navigation Conference in Montreal in November 2012 and that is what we are aiming at right now – to really push hard in order to reach an agreement before then."