In November last year, the Airport Council International (ACI) Europe released a report where it outlined its vision and proposals for a reform of the European Air Traffic Management (ATM) system and stressed the ever-growing importance of investing in new technological developments.

The paper builds on recent figures by the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (commonly known as Eurocontrol), which showed an increase in average delay per flight in Europe by 129% in the summer period of July-August 2018 – the main causes being a lack of air traffic controllers and other ATC capacity issues.

According to ACI Europe director general Olivier Jankovec, this peak in delays is due to the failure of the Single European Sky (SES) project – a pan-European initiative launched in 2004 – to deliver a solid ATM system for the continent. He wrote in the report: “The promises of the EU’s Single European Sky project have failed to materialise. It is high time for a reset. We need to see meaningful reform.”

Launched in the early 2000s by the European Commission, the SES project was originally created with the purpose to decrease the number of delays in Europe and mitigate aviation’s environmental impact, as well as improve capacity and safety across the continent’s space system by 2020.

However, over the past few years, the scheme has been struggling to achieve its targets and is moving at a much slower pace than planned. Uncertainty over its effectiveness reached a peak in late 2017, when the EU Court of Auditors said the policy as a concept had not been realised yet, but that it was still justified as key to breaking down national monopolies.

With only two years left to deliver on the targets set in 2004, many have joined the ACI Europe in asking for meaningful reforms to take place.

Single European Sky: latest developments

The situation is only partially as bad as it looks. According to a spokesperson for the European Commission, safety levels, for example, have been maintained or have slightly improved across the continent.

“The Commission is currently analysing possible measures to relaunch the SES initiative and accelerate its implementation.”

Over the past few years, progress has also been made from an environmental point of view, as flight extensions due to ATM issues steadily reduced. “This was primarily due to improvements in airspace design across the borders,” explains the spokesperson. “However, it is penalised by cost displacement issues – such as airspace users flying longer routes to overfly states with cheaper route charges – and by a lack of flexibility of the airspace users’ flight planning tools.”

He adds that the rise in the cost of ATM has been stopped, with the actual unit cost incurred by airspace users further dropping from €59 per flight in 2012 to €54 per flight in 2015.

However, despite a drop in delays between 2012 and 2014 – also partially due to lower traffic rates – a new growth in traffic over the past four years has led to a new rise in delays. This means that the SES’ target of 0.5 minutes per flight as average delay for en-route traffic management has not been reached.

As a result, “the Commission is currently analysing possible measures to relaunch the SES initiative and accelerate its implementation. This work will come to concrete results mid-2019,” the spokesperson adds.

Digitalising ATM

In this moment of uncertainty, modernising ATM is at the very core of implementing any future projects related to the SES initiative. Within this framework, digitalisation can be a valuable tool. As the Commission spokesperson puts it, “the ATM system badly needs a profound digital transformation to make it more automated, innovative and based on state-of-art components such as satellite technologies.”

“The modernisation of the ATM system is and will be the cornerstone of the implementation of the SES initiative in the future.”

Such urgency to digitalise aviation and ATM in the continent has led to the creation of what has been described as the SES’ “technological pillar”, the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) project.

Launched in 2007, SESAR is responsible for all EU research and development activities in ATM and has worked on several projects including the introduction of drones in airports, noise pollution and how to decrease aviation’s environmental impact.

“The modernisation of the ATM system is and will be the cornerstone of the implementation of the SES initiative in the future,” explains the Commission. “In this light and in view of the next financial cycle, the EU will relaunch its action to promote the modernisation process building upon the results of the Single European Sky ATM Research project.”

A “digital backbone” to support SESAR

In a bid to support SESAR in its research, the A6 Alliance of air navigation service providers and the Eurocontrol recently launched a ‘digital backbone’ that highlights the importance of creating a shared data exchange infrastructure within the SES.

“By its very nature, air traffic control involves sharing a great deal of data between multiple Air Navigation Service Providers across many geographic borders,” explains Jonathan Astill, chair of the A6 Alliance Strategy Board. “Increasingly, as we automate how we do this, digitalising the industry, we will need to share data with all of the operational stakeholders.”

“As traffic increases, it will be ever more important to manage the network as efficiently as possible.”

Yet, in order for such shared data infrastructure to be effective, there is need for it to be secure and simple to use for operational staff. This is why Astill says the goal is “to ensure that we can have a common infrastructure underpinning future important data exchange for ATM operations in Europe via an operational stakeholder-managed digital backbone.”

Research carried in 2010 by the European Commission predicted that the number of flights in the continent would increase from 26,000 to more than double by 2020. In 2016, this figure had risen to over 27,000, indicating huge margins of growth on the horizon.

“As traffic increases,” says Astill, “it will be ever more important to manage the network as efficiently as possible to reduce delay and improve passenger experience, as well as improving efficiency and reducing costs for both the airspace users and the ATM providers.”

He claims the ‘digital backbone’ could pave the way to a much broader IT system that could help achieve the EU’s much longed-for ATM system, putting it a step closer to a Single European Sky: “Over time, the scope could widen to include further shared IT capabilities required for the inclusive, safe and cyber-secure end-to-end digitalisation of European ATM. We know that all of the participants [to the initiative] have very similar thinking, and this initiative will draw all of that together.”