A future for FABs?

In view of the huge effort that went into creating at least the legal framework for the nine Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs) and the recent hard words from the industry blasting states and the European Commission for the failure of the FABs to deliver anything really useful by the December 4 deadline, the question may sound peculiar.

However, it is may not be as outlandish as it may sound, according to Steve Zerkowitz who takes a closer look at what the FABs really are before trying to answer the question.


Europe has been struggling with its fragmented air traffic management system for decades. While the United States was handling a lot more traffic equally safely but at a much lower cost to the airlines, Europe was going from one failed ATM project to the other with mighty little to show for it. EATCHIP in several phases followed by ATM2000+, all filled with lofty aims and truly forward looking ideas… and all coming to a virtual halt because of the reluctance of European states to change the status quo.

A Chronicle of Inaction: The Functional Airspace Block

The European Commission’s Single European Sky (SES) initiative was supposed to put the regulatory oomph behind the drive to repair European ATM but even that has proved to be lacking. SES I was followed by SES II…

This brings us to the famous Functional Airspace Blocks (FAB). Some like to present this idea as revolutionary but in fact the FAB concept was nothing more than an admission that Europe, as a whole, was incapable of agreeing on how to build a better ATM system and by reducing the task to more manageable chunks, it should work better. Of course things blew up right at the start… Instead of the 3 maximum 4 FABs Europe would ever need we ended up with nine (!), all created mainly on political grounds, clearly a poor start for what should have been a functional redistribution of European ATM.

Having basically adulterated the original FAB concept by increasing the number of FABs to nine, European ANSPs left the whole thing dormant for a couple of years and it took the European Commission some serious saber rattling before they started to build something… reluctantly at first then with more enthusiasm when they realized that the FAB concept is the perfect thing to hide behind and be rid of troublesome European requirements.

Devilish Detail

If members of a given FAB agree on something that is different from what Europe as whole would need, that is too bad. It is not by accident that to this day, there is no effective working structure above the FABs to force them to work in harmony on a European level. The EC implementing rules cover certain aspects but as in the past, the devil is in the detail… and FABs rule there individually. The idea that EUROCONTROL is the network manager (with no real powers to do much) does not solve anything either.

So what are the FABs doing? In all fairness we must recognize that they did inherit all the problems and unsolved issues of European ATM that plagued the continent in the past and which are now hot potatoes in the hands of the various FAB member States. Obviously, before turning to more imaginative things for the future, they need to attend to the pedestrian and long-unsolved issues rearing their ugly heads from the pre-FAB past.

However, what was found in many cases is that agreements that were hard or impossible to reach on the European level are not always easier to engineer on the FAB level either. Group disagreement multiplied by nine is still a disagreement…

So, in a way one might even say that criticism being leveled against the FABs for their failure to deliver is in a way unfair. They were thrown a very high ball with the audience cheering: solve on your level what Europe was incapable to do on a continent-wide level. Slow or no progress should not be a surprise. What is happening now is what some experts have been warning about right from the start.

But there is another, equally serious problem with the FAB concept. It is totally incompatible with the SESAR concept of operations!

I know that many in the ATM community are claiming that SESAR was built from the ground up to benefit from the FABs, but this is simply not true.


The FABs replaced ATM fragmentation on state level with ATM fragmentation on FAB level. SESAR, with its trajectory based concept is not airspace oriented, it is trajectory oriented. The FAB concept is legacy thinking in a new coat which, had it been introduced at its inception, would have brought some improvement to the catastrophic situation that existed back then but which will kill the SESAR concept if it continues to exist in the future.

Had the FABs started work 10 years ago, by now they would have been amortized, given relief, taught lessons in cooperation and would be ready to give way to the trajectory based concept that is the future.

Here is the catch. The FABs have just managed to create themselves as legal entities, are struggling with the legacy problems, have a hard time to agree on most anything and all this time, they are the penultimate manifestation of the airspace based legacy thinking that was the root cause of most of Europe’s ATM problems… And the reason why SESAR was created and made into a trajectory based concept, to finally rid ourselves of the shackles of the airspace based paradigm.

The airlines are clamoring to get the FABs in place since there is not much else they can hope for. But their love affair with the FABs should not be over-rated.

The uproar is mush more about the fact that Europe has once again failed in getting its ATM improvement initiatives off the ground, once more things have stayed the same while money is flowing into the bottomless pit that has already swallowed EATCHIP and ATM2000+… and which will swallow SESAR also if things are not set right soon.

Perhaps it is time to take stock. Perhaps it is time to recognize that the FAB concept has grown hopelessly old without having even left the showroom. Perhaps it is time to have a really hard look at what has caused the decade long failures.

Twilight Zone

Perhaps it is time to recognize that the solution to fragmentation is not fragmentation of a different kind. To admit, that without a European body with both the expertise and powers to make things happen things will simply stay the same and ATM will remain forever in the twilight zone of going from one failed initiative to the next.

Let’s not kid ourselves. If the FABs failed to kick-start the most elementary ATM improvements there are, what chance has SESAR with its infinitely more complex requirements and paradigm changes? Zero…

It is also pretty frightening to see how some people are trying to re-engineer SESAR to be FAB compliant. I do not think anyone really wants to end up with nine little SESARs.

So, what is the way forward? Is there a future for the FABs? I am convinced that there is only one way out. Cut your losses and do two things:

One, establish the European FAA (call it whatever you want) that would set policy and oversee implementation. Give it the proper powers and responsibilities to ensure that it gets the job done. Air traffic management should cease to be a state franchise to be kicked around at will.

Two, using the FAB structure, implement the simple, quick win solutions without delay and then start the transition to what is needed for the trajectory based concept of SESAR. This should include the progressive elimination of all obstacles that would hinder the introduction of trajectory based operations.

By the time SESAR really takes off, FABs should take their well earned place in the museum of ATM memorabilia. Too ambitious? Well, after 20 years of failures a bit of extra ambition may not be such a bad thing.

Posted in Features, Single European Sky

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