Central Concerns

Air Traffic Management meets Bo Redeborn, Eurocontrol’s principal director of ATM, to quiz him on radical proposals to shake up Europe’s aviation institutions in time for the deployment of Single European Sky technology.
Brussels looks determined to exert far more centralised control over the Single European Sky through the establishment of a European Aviation Administration to speed certification, a newly-styled European infrastructure manager that could hold sway over significant spending decisions -even through allowing mergers and cross-border alliances by national air traffic control agencies.
Expected by early summer, the new legislation which could bring this all about – Single European Sky II+ or simply ‘SES2+ – will tackle issues such as operating costs, streamlining and modernising existing regulation, and refining both performance and institutional aspects to kickstart much needed economic growth in the European aviation sector.
Air Traffic Management interviewed Bo Redeborn, Eurocontrol’s principal director of ATM, and asked him what forthcoming measures could potentially signify for an agency whose avowed aim is to accelerate the implementation of the key improvements required for a future of European ATM system.
ATM: Only recently the European transport chief, Commissioner Siim Kallas, commenting on the future of Eurocontrol in terms of its role as Network Manager, said further development of Eurocontrol’s role and responsibilities would be needed. He said the agency would need to be able to perform a number of new centralised services arising from SESAR – the technological framework on which Europe’s ATM modernisation effort will depend. Does Eurocontrol agree with that vision?
Redeborn: Let me first start with a disclaimer. At Eurocontrol, while we don’t know what the European Commission is going to propose, it has identified a few areas that need to be improved in an effort to continue towards establishing the Single European Sky. The Network Manager and the Performance Review Board elements are now in place together with the enlargement of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).
In terms of the regulatory framework, it looks like the Commission’s intention is to propose to move regulatory tasks from the member states to EASA. It is also considering – at least in the longer term – to enlarge EASA’s scope to address not only safety regulation but also regulation in a more generic sense, to become a tool for the Commission to put regulatory and rulemaking elements in place for the whole of Europe enabling a total system approach.
That means they don’t see Eurocontrol in the future as performing regulatory tasks. Having said that, however, we do need to agree what we mean about regulation because for us it is rather a narrow task in terms of aviation system on one hand and, on the other, what we need in terms of interoperability, standards specifications, guidance material etc etc. They are not regulatory elements in their own right but are complementary to regulation in order to allow people to comply with the regulation.
Technical specifications have never been drafted by regulators and will not be in the future. That can be done by many parties and we still believe there is an important role for Eurocontrol to support this function. We do, however, also accept, of course, that if the Commission wants to move the regulatory responsibility from the states to EASA then we will have a slightly different role because in the past we have helped the states harmonise their own regulatory framework.
ATM: Kallas also said Eurocontrol needed to be efficient, driven by industry expertise and focused on a set of services that are most efficiently performed at network level. What will that mean for Eurocontrol?
Redeborn: The Commission has said that it wants to support the enhancement of the network management functions to actually extend them and they, at least for the moment, appear very open to increasing the number of centralised services.
What they actually mean by their notion of Infrastructure Manager we don’t yet know but from where we view it, there have been some very encouraging results to date produced by centralised services.
Historically, the real political decision to establish centralised services was taken in 1988 when the ministers of the European Civil Aviation Conference decided to centralise flow management in an effort to solve unacceptable delays. They decided they needed to mitigate the problem caused by fragmentation and establish a function to manage restrictions in a co-ordinated way.
Eurocontrol got the task to establish it in 1995. We have been running the flight plan processing system for all flights since that time, followed by the creation of the Central Flow Management Unit and more recently the European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell following the volcanic ash crisis. All of which are centralised services.
We think the Commission wants to continue down that path. Some of the new functions coming out of SESAR could be deployed centrally and services provided to the states, centres, towers, airlines rather than being imposed in each country individually. It may well be more cost beneficial to deploy something centrally in terms of processing and then deliver it as a service than it would be for each and every one to establish something themselves. But exactly what the content of that would be is wide open at the moment.
ATM: What could that mean in a SESAR deployment scenario?
Redeborn: We could be talking about enhancing PENS, the pan European network service which is basically an IPv6 network used for communications. We currently use it for flow management data to connect to all the centres. That could be expanded to airlines, airports and all the ANSPS so we have a common intranet for aviation. We are talking about a data repository for system wide information management offering dynamic aeronautical information with geographic and time attributes.
We’ve also been looking at a pre-flight 4D trajectory prediction to better improve the accuracy of how the network will perform and by applying that we may be able to increase the capacity and efficiency of flight.
Of course, the notion of the Infrastructure Manager could extend further. For the moment, we have not looked at locally deployed ground infrastructure as part of that as we believe that that is better dealt with by national service providers. So it is basically an extension of the old flow management unit with the Network Manager’s role enlarged a little bit in scope with more of the local processing done centrally.
It makes sense. The further out that you can accumulate delay, the less costly it is for airlines and in order to get an organised flow into a congested runway, you can do a lot more upstream than you can do today instead of holding around an airport waiting for your turn to land. Ideally that can be done before departure and by adapting routing and profile you could achieve a more optimum profile.
That is not so controversial but if you go one step further and start talking about local flight data process, surveillance sensors, air-ground communication networks it becomes a little more controversial. Controversial because it not only takes away from national air navigation service providers but also because of the business models of the many technical providers of ATM equipment. Of course, they want to sell as much equipment as they can to each and every centre whereas we would simply deliver the service.
ATM: Could you cite an example of that?
Redeborn: Take the business model for datalink services in aviation, for example, which is currently an oligopoly of Arinc and Sita. The obviously don’t see a great interest in what is being proposed by Inmarsat and Iridium which are trying to make their way in through various means. You cannot actually stop this development. It happens in all kinds of business. There is a kind of strategic ambition for certain service providers and manufacturers to delay the introduction of new capabilities because it changes what they have as a business advantage into a business disadvantage.
The collection of ADS-B reports, for instance, over Iridium’s satellite network. That capability could in many cases completely replace the need to have a ground infrastructure. Immediately, you can examine the cost of establishing your own network compared to just subscribing to the service for the segments of airspace for which you are responsible. You receive the position reports delivered as a service rather than from a network that you run yourself.
The redundancy network could arguably be a far less dense network than if you ran it without this sort of technology.
This paradigm shift offered by emerging technology is creeping up on us and I am convinced that if you roll out SESAR on the basis of old-fashioned ATM architecture, we will struggle to make the business case. Right now, demand for additional capacity is not that high while demand for greater flight efficiency is very high. So the cost of building new infrastructure at a time of stable traffic growth makes it nearly impossible to make the business case in each and every centre.
ATM: So your argument essentially focuses on the need to overhaul the current architecture to be in a position to deliver these cost-effective centralised services across Europe?
Redeborn: Yes and, in doing so, you may just be able to turn a bad business case into a very positive one. Since we have the performance review now and the ambition to cut costs everywhere, we need to look at those new business models.
I think here we have been a little bit behind in terms of social media development and apps and all the rest. After all, if you are connected today in other areas, you don’t care too much about from where the data comes or exactly how it is delivered to you but you know you have access to virtually everything you need if you are connected. Take Skyguide, for example. They have already decided to push for the development in this direction. Rather than buy a new FDP, they are more interested in buying a service if someone can deliver it.
We also have the Dutch Air Force that has decided to do something similar with the Maastricht (MUAC) centre which has one of the most sophisticated FDPs in operation today. That will, in a year or so, deliver their flight data processing services. They’ll get a good service without actually having to invest in a FDP themselves.
We’re seeing small signs of such development but many ANSPs are still desperately holding on to infrastructure because they don’t want to become a manpower business of controllers. They want to keep hold of infrastructure which is a positive element in the balance sheet in terms of company value. But, of course, if the infrastructure is not needed in the future then it will not have a very high value.
ATM: So you don’t expect much political support for the Commission’s concept of centralised services, something which would risk incurring even more delays to the Single European Sky programme?
Redeborn: We are still struggling with what technologies will feature in SESAR deployment. In the short term and in the current economic climate, we are probably looking at high value, low cost operational improvements, aspects of what we can deliver better with minimum investment in terms of new avionics, new systems on the ground. So, on the procedure side there are elements of SESAR that are not heavily dependent on that: PBN, RNP, SIDS, STARS – also some things such as improved flow management such as the pre-flight 4D trajectory predictor. Those sorts of things are non-controversial and we can do a lot with that as a precursor to SESAR deployment.
Then, I hope the business case will mature and speak for itself. You start realising that certain things are going to cost an awful lot and deliver very little. If you look at area control centres wherever it may be, say, Zurich and Geneva where they have already concluded that this is not going to fly, then you are going to need to look for another solution. So then, of course, they would be candidates to become the launch customers of such centralised services.
The old model that everybody talked about 10 years ago was to consolidate centres and that has proved to be extraordinarily difficult. If you tell controllers they have to relocate you will get a very strong push back in addition to the fact that the actual time take to close down a centre is 10 years or more.
It would surely be better to centralise the infrastructure and provide the service from somewhere that is not necessarily where the controller works. That removes the incentive to move the controllers simply by doing less processing behind the screen, something that historically developed because we did not have the communications infrastructure 20-25 years ago to do remote processing and transfer the real-time surveillance picture to the centres.
More centralised services will happen whether we like it or not. The question is how fast and how much resistance we get before everyone gives up. Eventually you have to give in, there’s absolutely no way back in my opinion. It’s just a matter of determining who delivers the centralised service: is it us or is it a part of the Functional Airspace Block that does it?
ATM: So perhaps Eurocontrol would in future find itself in competition with a federated ANSP entity such as Borealis, perhaps?
Redeborn: That may be one way in which it is interpreted but hopefully we will reach agreement on what we deliver to Borealis and what Borealis members would do themselves. The real work that has to start now is to determine what is most efficiently executed locally, what is more efficiently executed regionally and what is more efficiently executed centrally. Once you have determined exactly where things are the most efficiently performed, then deployment could happen very quickly because you can manage the tasking, where things are going to happen. How long will that take to happen? The views today are very different. The Swiss are at the fore of developing this idea of centralised services with their CEO Daniel Weder saying he would like to buy his services from the Cloud. At the other end of the spectrum you have countries like France which believes that whatever happens in France has to be also processed there.
ATM: Is this a new idea borne out of institutional panic that the Single European Sky project, on current performance, is doomed?
Redeborn: For me this idea is not new although in terms of being discussed widely across Europe it is new due to the fact that there is disappointment on the part of airspace users who are still waiting for the Single Sky to deliver. That’s why we need to look at how to afford putting the SESAR ideas into place.
There is a lot of uncertainty over where we will end up but I am absolutely convinced that the path is clear, the way it is going. It all depends on the resistance we meet and what that kind of resistance will mean in terms of delays to putting it in place.
The typical mentality of this industry is to walk backwards into the future bringing all the old stuff with us which makes it difficult to secure the business case. We are not willing to get rid of stuff we had in the past and that is why we have an overdeveloped infrastructure today – more radars, more VOR than we need. This is simply due to historical reasons because infrastructure has not been decommissioned as quickly as it could have been because emerging technology has not been exploited.
The goodwill is definitely there. I don’t think that is a problem at all. However, their fear of giving something up, or the fear of losing job opportunities, of the fear of letting someone else take control of something they would like to keep in their own country – that is the real problem.
ATM: Kallas said that if we do not pave the way now and prepare for the pick-up in demand, Europe’s air traffic system will find itself in a crisis situation that it could – and should – have avoided. Do you agree?
Redeborn: Maybe a little bit of crisis and a little bit of traffic growth over the next four to five years would help us, I believe. The system works too well right at this minute. We are the victim of our own success. Until there is a traffic increase that means we run short of capacity, it will be hard to convince the politicians that we need to do something serious about a system that they think works perfectly. Historically, most of the major changes that have occurred swiftly have been the result of a crisis. That is a fact. On the other hand, there are small changes happening all the time. It is just that without a crisis, as a collective of colleagues, we allow ourselves years and years of debating simple things. Crises speed up the decision-making process. When you’re in a crisis you can actually agree things within a matter of weeks. That could make all the difference.