Few projects epitomise the comprehensive political vision of EU integration quite so vividly as the Single European Sky (SES) initiative, and with the airspace over member states getting ever busier, its success has arguably never been more important.
Facing a predicted doubling of flights by 2020, and against a backdrop of escalating costs, the rising demands being placed on Europe's fragmented and increasingly obsolescent air traffic management (ATM) architecture throws the need for change into ever-sharpening relief.
As European Commission vice-president, Siim Kallas, put it in his December 2010 speech to the European Aviation Club, "the competitiveness of the European air transport system is currently hampered by inefficiencies of air traffic management. The fragmentation of the airspace costs the sector €3bn ($4bn). Inefficiencies of the air traffic management system in Europe are responsible for 16 million tons of unnecessary CO2 emissions. The implementation of the Single European Sky is therefore not an option - it is an essential requirement for an efficient and sustainable air transport system in Europe."
There is little doubt that linking the technology and setting aside the current system of national controls would reduce delays, improve efficiencies, cut costs and go some way towards overcoming projected capacity shortfalls - but that was just as true back in 1999, when the SES idea was first born. More than ten years on, despite workforce concerns and a few ruffled feathers of surrendered national sovereignty along the way, is this long-awaited initiative finally about to deliver? A series of major programme developments announced over the last few months means it is certainly beginning to look that way.
The European Commission's SES ATM research (SESAR) air traffic control infrastructure modernisation project made a crucial advance with the signing of an EU-US memorandum of cooperation on ATM at the end of February. Beyond establishing the general framework for collaboration, it contains a dedicated addendum to address the development of SESAR and NextGen - its US counterpart - and ensure the future interoperability of both. Aside of the obvious safety advantages this will bring, it will also help reduce costs by eliminating the need to 'double-up' on-board equipment to service mutually incompatible systems.
In addition, the first concrete outcomes of the research are also now beginning to be seen, as SESAR members performed a total of 29 validation exercises across Europe during 2011. Some of these have already taken place, including the generalisation of auto pilot / flight director traffic alert and collision avoidance system, the provision of ATC services at Ängelholm airport using a remote tower prototype, new approach procedures based on satellite technology at Southampton airport and through-flight trials for 'controlled time of arrival' features exchanged between aircraft and ground, using initial 4D capabilities. Others will follow.
The associated functional airspace blocks (FABs) programme has also made some significant progress towards its goal of establishing nine FABs by the end of 2012, and thus streamlining trans-European flight paths.
Notably, the commission devised rules in February to harmonise and facilitate the exchange of information between all the SES actors, while four of them - IAA, NATS, Naviair and LFV, the air navigation service providers of the Ireland / UK and Denmark / Sweden FABs - have themselves signed an agreement which will boost flight efficiency across their combined airspace.
Politics and technology
There have been positive developments elsewhere too, and not least of these was the commission's adoption at the end of March of 'Transport 2050' - a comprehensive strategy for a competitive European transport system to increase mobility, drive growth and improve employment. It is a policy that explicitly emphasises the pressing need for the complete modernisation of Europe's ATM; it is, as Kallas said three months earlier, 'crucial', and the political momentum towards achieving it seems to be building.
This is helped, of course, by its potential to reduce the environmental impact of European aviation. One of the first goals established for SES was to cut the effect of each flight by 10%, and most recently Transport 2050 reaffirmed this central commitment to curbing emissions - and it is achievable. The fuel saving alone from simply doing away with the current situation where 27 national borders define the EU's upper airspace, around 50 ATC centres control it, and pre-determined routing forces aircraft to zigzag around military and other exclusion zones, could make that 10% reduction target a reality for many flights.
Likewise, while the challenge of linking technology and systems across the EU and beyond to ensure that managing the ATM complexities of the single sky is possible, safe and efficient is an ambitious one, it is not an impossible ask either. Granted it will call for improved sensor systems, increased automation, a greater reliance on satellite navigation and a more efficient telecommunications network to provide faster, surer access to flight information and operational data to all stakeholders, but these technologies are likely to form the way of the future, whatever else happens. However, even after the ensuing chaos of last year's Eyjafjallajökull ash cloud spurred the commission's drive to accelerate the delivery of SES, one fundamental question still remains. Are the EU member states really ready to cooperate in anything more than principle, to make it happen?
SES: national cooperation?
European aviation analyst Sergey Domradov believes they are, but warns that getting the professionals involved in actually running the new ATM architecture fully on-side will prove key. "There is a danger of focussing on the paradigm technology, and the political Euro-speak, and forgetting the people. For instance, the human factor was recognised as the 'prime enabler of change' in the Madrid declaration. It sounds good, but little seems to have happened since then."
He suggests that while everybody is in broad agreement with the proposals, and sees the evident benefits to be had, many of the supposed 'nationalistic' objections emanate largely from nothing more sinister than a natural affinity for the familiar. "It's like Bo Redeborn [director of cooperative network design at EUROCONTROL - the agency overseeing uniting European airspace] has said, everyone seems to think that they can carry on doing what they have always done, and everyone else will harmonise with them. From the individual navigation provider's perspective, 'their' bit of the system works perfectly - so why change it? It's all about the people; it's people who will ultimately agree on the systems and the routes, so it's crucial to engage with them all the way."
If he is right, then it seems that there may be one or two more steps to take before European aviation finally gets to fly under its single sky.