A Decade In Perspective

Back in 2005, aviation consultancy Helios undertook its third ATM Industry Survey, hosted online and at its stand at the ATC Maastricht exhibition. With nearly 400 aviation people taking part, the survey was a true barometer of opinion and expectations.

Ten years on, Helios’ Naheed Arshad looks back at the survey responses and gives her view on what the industry got right and wrong. She explores how the industry has changed and highlights some of the complexities of progress ahead of this year’s survey, which is being run in association with Air Traffic Management magazine.

In 2005 I had been with Helios for six years, and among other things, was working on the Performance Review Reports for the Performance Review Unit (PRU). The first package of Single European Sky (SES) regulations was one year old. The SES member states comprised the 25 countries of the European Union, plus Switzerland and Norway.

These provided en-route services through 55 area control centres (ACCs), including a cross-border ACC in Maastricht – the only one of its kind in Europe at the time. The European Commission (EC) was still targeting 2010 for the implementation of the Single Sky. SESAR was known as SESAME. IFR traffic levels within Europe were increasing by around 4 per cent per annum. Delays, too, were increasing.

Looking back at the survey responses I am struck by the optimism of respondents (26 per cent of which were ANSPs, 21 per cent research organisations, 19 per cent suppliers, 11 per cent EC/Eurocontrol, 3 per cent regulators, 3 per cent airlines, 2 per cent airports and 15 per cent other).

Their answers revealed expectations that the SES would deliver benefits, tempered by some realism over timescales. Eurocontrol was seen as the most influential body in the delivery of the Single European Sky and EASA was expected to assume responsibility for safety regulation. For the first time, controller tools were recognised as an important technology for capacity improvements, alongside airport expansion and datalink. So was their optimism well-founded?

The SES vision

The SES initiative was born out of the need to address the severe capacity issues of the 1990’s and alleviate fragmentation in European ATM. Our own 2006 study, commissioned by the PRC, put the costs of fragmentation in Europe at between €0.8-€1.4 bn per annum. SES reforms aimed to address sustained traffic growth safely and cost effectively. The objective was to de-fragment European airspace, reduce delays, increase safety standards and flight efficiency, and reduce service provision costs. Four basic regulations were introduced in the first package: framework, airspace, interoperability and service provision.

Challenges to implementation

Figure 1

Figure 1

In 2005 we asked people: what is the greatest challenge to SES implementation?

Fifty-one per cent of respondents identified ‘political/legal framework’ as the greatest challenge (see Figure 1), the strongest result by some margin. We commented at the time that there were many issues, including questions of sovereignty, that would be ‘the most difficult to resolve’. The Commission tried a second package of legislation (SES 2) introduced in 2009, which shifted the focus onto performance among other things. However, with progress still slow, further legislation (SES 2+) has been proposed to strengthen economic regulation and introduce some market measures. Looking back, the biggest issue has been that member states are not convinced of the value of SES to them and have acted as barriers to implementation.


Figure 2

Figure 2

In our 2005 survey, over 80 per cent of respondents expected that 55 ACCs would decrease to below 40 by 2015. Indeed, the most popular answer – from 24 per cent of respondents – was between 11 and 20 ACCs!

As I write in 2015, the number of ACCs in the SES States is 57, an increase of two ACCs from 2005 (see Figure 2), rather than the anticipated reduction seen by many of our respondents. This appears to be a disappointing lack of progress in 10 years. However, as in many things ATC, the reality is more complex.

When we look at the states which were part of SES in 2005, the number of ACCs has decreased to 49, indicating that rationalisation has happened. A number of states have rationalised their ATC services into fewer centres. Germany, UK, Finland, Sweden, and Norway have all reduced the number of ACCs.

At the same time, over the last ten years, the number of SES member states has increased. The European Union has increased to 28 states with Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia joining in that period. SES member states now include Iceland and parties to the European Common Area Agreement (ECAA) which include Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro. The inclusion of these states has increased the number of ACCs by eight.

So although some states have made efforts to consolidate centres, the addition of new states has increased the number of centres, partially due to geo-political factors. Elsewhere, ANSPs have created joint enterprises to provide air navigation services (ANS) over-unified airspace (NUAC), providing initial steps to efficiency without the need for centre consolidation.

The significant rationalisation expected from the SES, and from our survey respondents in 2005, has not materialised. Similarly, there has been limited progress towards cross-border ACCs, providing ATC services across a number of states. Political and sovereignty issues over loss of control of national airspace and the social costs from rationalisation have proved to be a barrier to further rationalisation. Until recently, ANSPs have been under a full cost-recovery regime, and therefore the impetus to reduce significant costs and make major changes to ATC service provision has been absent.

SES progress

In our 2005 survey we asked: ‘Can the EC implement SES by the original target of 2010?’ The largest response at 36 per cent was that it would miss the 2010 target, but that it would be achieved by 2012. A further 28 per cent of respondents thought that SES would be achieved in its entirety by 2018. Most people today would agree that the original SES vision has not yet been achieved and is unlikely to get there by 2018. So what progress has been made in the last ten years?

Defragmenting airspace: FABs (Functional Airspace Blocks) were one of the cornerstones in the EC’s objectives of reducing fragmentation and optimising airspace. Although nine FABs have been established, the level of fragmentation has not reduced substantially and there has been no major optimisation of airspace across borders.

However, some progress has been made. FABs have led to increased coordination and collaboration between neighbouring ANSPs. Common procurement has taken place, for example in Danube FAB and FABEC. Civil military coordination has improved with integrated centres now in existence, flexible use of airspace and free routing progressively being implemented. Although route optimisation is already done at European level, FABs have led to increased regional coordination.

Integrated approach towards safety: SES introduced a more integrated approach to safety through the transfer of competencies to EASA – although there is debate today about whether the division of responsibilities between EASA and national regulators is sufficiently clear. SES has succeeded in creating a distinction between the regulated and the regulator.

The adoption of safety objectives has been slower than expected, and whilst some stakeholders have captured the spirit of the safety objectives, others have used the rules as a box-ticking exercise. Eurocontrol was perceived as an excellent promoter and ambassador for safety, but lacked regulatory clout. EASA has the clout, but there is still a need for awareness-raising.

Interoperability (IOP): The IOP regulation aimed to ensure a rigorous approach to meeting interoperability requirements – the so-called conformity assessment; and to promote deployment of new technology. The first part took a long time to achieve and is seen as cumbersome by some ANSPs. SES2+ moves conformity assessment to EASA. The use of IOP rules to promote new technology does not appear to have speeded up anything.

But today we have a new Deployment Manager and new legal instruments – EASA performance regulations to establish interoperability requirements and the Common Projects to define the ATM functionalities – these come with public funding as well, so things are looking up.

Technology innovation: In 2005 a range of measures to expand capacity were proposed including: ATCO tools, RNAV, ASAS and datalink. But traffic dropped and the need for new technology decreased. ANSPs needing capacity focused on controller tools and the CFMU improved air traffic flow management. We now have better demand-capacity balancing without expensive avionics.

Looking at longer-term innovation, what started out as SESAME at the time of our 2005 survey became later that year SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research) – the technological component of SES. SESAR has succeeded in channelling effort and focus into a genuinely pan-European R&D programme and has established a solid process for maturing solutions and achieving consensus. It has reduced duplication and fostered collaborative R&D, but perhaps at the expense of innovation.

From capacity to cost-efficiency

Figure 3, Source: Performance Review Reports and STATFOR

Figure 3, Source: Performance Review Reports and STATFOR

As air traffic levelled off and dipped (see Figure 3), the need for capacity solutions subsided. When jet fuel prices rose to over $80/barrel in 2006 from under $50/barrel just two years earlier, the focus for airlines shifted towards flight efficiency , and with the economic downturn, increased pressure was put on ANSPs to reduce their costs.

SES aimed to halve the cost of ATM services to airspace users. The reductions in cost envisaged by the SES and the performance scheme have not fully materialised. However, there is increased focus on reducing costs for en-route and terminal services with the introduction of the performance scheme in 2010 and a move away from a full cost recovery regime.

Analysis undertaken by the PRC and published in November 2013 considered total ATM/CNS costs per flight hour for the SES states. It showed a total cost per flight hour decrease of 10 per cent in real terms between 2002 and 2011 (2002-2011 US-Europe continental comparison of ANS cost-efficiency trends). We will be looking at this topic again in the next issue of Air Traffic Management magazine and providing some fresh analysis.


With hindsight it looks like our respondents got it right when they identified political, legal and sovereignty issues as the greatest challenge to SES implementation. It is also evident that their great hopes have not been realised.

LogoNevertheless, European ATM looks quite different in terms of the roles and responsibilities of its institutions, the regulations that govern it and even the technologies that it is developing. Our 2015 survey will pick up on these themes and ask today’s aviation professionals what they think has been achieved, what their greatest disappointments are and where they think the greatest benefits lie. The findings were published in Issue 3 of Air Traffic Management magazine.

Helios’ ATM Industry Survey 2015 is brought to you in association with Air Traffic Management magazine.

Posted in Avionics, Features, SESAR, Single European Sky

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