Good Tidings?

Will the report of the Wise Persons Group on the future of the Single European Sky herald a much needed revolution for the industry, asks Paul Ravenhill?

The Wise Persons Group (WPG) report published in April is the third in a series of such reports designed to drive the EU legislative agenda for ATM. The first High Level Group report was published November 2000 (HLG1) and led to first Single European Sky package, the second in July 2007 (HLG2) and led to the second SES package and a greater focus on performance and network management. And of course, this third report is designed to set the scene for a third package of legislation.

But what sort of changes does the WPG report herald? This article attempts to answer this question by considering continuity of with the previous reports and the current priorities to achieve ATM modernisation, as articulated in the recently published Airspace Architecture Study.

Each of the three reports were published at a time of growing demand for air transport leading to increased delays. All three reports make a strong case that an ATM system as complex as Europe’s requires a pan-European solution. This holds true – historically much of the inefficiency in the system can be traced back fragmentation caused by piecemeal development of national airspace and systems.

HLG1: Setting the scene

Twenty years ago, the Europe looked to the United States of America and the Federal Aviation Authority as the example of how to handle growing traffic. In its Performance Review report for 2000, Eurocontrol’s Performance Review Commission provided an initial comparison of the US and European ATM systems. The political highlights were that the US system was capable of handling roughly twice the number of flights for the same cost with only one third of the en route centres and of course only one ANSP.

So, at the time, bigger did seem better. The Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre was held up as a shining example, and plans were in place for a Central European ATM System (CEATS) serving fundamentally what we would now call FAB Central Europe. But CEATS floundered and was eventually cancelled. The issues were mostly political, after all consolidation of area control centres in a single country is difficult; let alone consolidation across several states. Consolidation remains an issue today.

When the Single European Sky was launched in 2004, the need for consolidation was left unsaid. The first package of legislation echoes the main findings of the HLG1 report – in particular EU as rulemaker, a role for EASA in safety regulation, a role for Eurocontrol in achieving a pan-European dimension, separation between regulator and service provider and the strong involvement of both industry and social partners in decision-making. To some degree or other, all of this has been achieved and provides framework for modernisation.

The first SES package also included the HLG recommendation to ensure airspace was treated as a common resource by creating a European upper flight information region (EUIR). On this no progress was made. It also required the creation of Functional Airspace Blocks to support airspace optimisation – but perhaps the less said about that the better.

With the benefits of hindsight, it has become clear that the first SES package was insufficient – although it set a framework for modernisation, it did not drive it. Two initiatives emerged: SESAR and the second High Level Group Report focussed on the regulatory framework.

SESAR was born from a desire to achieve greater pull through from research and development (R&D) to deployment. Of course, there was R&D before SESAR. Eurocontrol ran large scale projects such as PHARE (the Programme for Harmonised ATM Research in EUROPE), the European Commission funded R&D through the various Framework Programmes and several member states had their own R&D labs. But all this research wasn’t leading to modernisation – indeed the fragmented approach to R&D ran the risk of promoting fragmented deployment. A European solution was needed to harmonise R&D and channel all efforts towards achievement of a single ATM Master Plan.

SESAR was born as a partnership – it enables all industry stakeholders, ANSPs, airlines, airports, suppliers to come together to develop the technological solutions that support ATM modernisation and achievement of the Single European Sky. Through the SESAR Joint Undertaking (SJU) work programme a harmonised R&D process is applied to mature ‘solutions’ from initial concept to the point where they are validated through large scale demonstrations. The SJU also enables involvement of a wider group of stakeholders – not least regulators and professional staff – in both the development of solutions but also the maintenance of the European ATM Master Plan. The partnership approach at the heart of SESAR is critical to building consensus on the path to a modernised high performing ATM system.

HLG2: Performance Focussed

By 2006, it was also clear that the regulatory framework needed strengthening, hence the second high level group and the birth of the performance scheme. HLG2 builds on the foundations created by SES1. It calls for a strengthening of the EU role as aviation regulator including the use of aviation agreements to involve non-EU members, further strengthen the role of EASA, strengthen the role of SESAR including establishing the deployment phase and to give greater responsibility to the industry for governance in ATM.

HLG2 also introduced two new concepts: pan-European ATM functions and the need to incentivise ANSP performance. These were picked up in second SES package as the Network Manager and the Performance Scheme.

Although the second SES package created a stronger regulatory framework it also created a series of questions at the heart of modernisation:

  • to what extent is a central authority required to “design” the ATM system?
  • which services are best delivered at pan-European, regional, national or local level?
  • what is the role of competition in driving performance?

In supporting a greater role for industry in ATM governance, the second SES package really left the answers up to the market. Unfortunately, the market doesn’t seem to have responded loudly enough.

The wasted decade?

In 2008, the global economic recession abruptly ended the sustained period of high traffic growth that gave birth to SESAR. Delays fell not from ATM modernisation but because traffic fell. The urgency to provide additional capacity was replaced by a focus on cost efficiency and environmental performance. The need for a bold technological vision retreated. The new pressure brought about by the performance scheme, the end of full cost recovery and the realisation that the aviation licence was under threat from its growing impact on the environment did lead to improvements. In particular in the upper airspace where the concept of Free Route Airspace has really taken hold and is leading to very good horizontal flight efficiency.

The cost efficiency pressures led to the emergence of industrial partnerships – common procurement clubs like COOPANS leading to harmonised systems with reduced system costs and initiatives like the Borealis Alliance looking at common service provision models. These industrial partnerships are starting to suggest that the future of ATM may be based around collaborative models at regional level – that efficiency can be gained not through central planning and consolidation but through genuine partnership.

The problem is that without high traffic growth focussing the minds of all ANSPs on the need for reform, the pace of change created by industrial partnerships was insufficient to deliver the necessary capacity when growth did return two years ago. The high delays of summer 2018, seem to indicate that the industry needs further regulatory intervention.

Is there a modern solution?

The technological landscape has changed dramatically since SES was launched in 2004. We know this from our everyday lives – the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, the near constant broadband connectivity. Amazon providing not just next day delivery – but next hour delivery. The emergence of electric and driverless cars. And, of course, drones.

Aviation is being impacted. The three big current industry trends – accommodation of drones, digital towers and cyber security – all arise from the possibility of this new hyper connected world we live in.

However, made nervous by the lack of progress within ATM itself, the European Parliament requested a detailed study to develop a proposal for a future airspace architecture that would enable the true creation of a Single European Sky. The Airspace Architecture Study (AAS) as it became known, was performed by the SESAR Joint Undertaking supported by the Network Manager. The AAS was performed at a time when it was clear that strong intervention is necessary to deliver sufficient capacity to cope with expected demand; but also in the knowledge that, in these unsettled times, the ATM system as a whole needs to be resilient to a much wider range of traffic than previously.

The AAS embraces modern solutions enabled by distributed collaborative platforms using the ‘notion of Single European Airspace System (SEAS) in which service providers collaborate and operate as if they were one organisation with both airspace and service provision optimised according to traffic patterns’.

The AAS does not require consolidation; it requires collaboration. From an infrastructure perspective, the AAS embraces virtualisation enabled by a service oriented architecture to support the progressive introduction of automation and enable the decoupling of airspace, provision of air traffic control and the underlying data and CNS services. Implemented well, such an architecture would enable ANSPs to better match capacity to demand by sharing the responsibility cross organisational boundaries – what the AAS refers to as Capacity on Demand. The AAS also supports the concept of ATM Data Service Providers providing common services to a group of ANSPs providing ATC. These two concepts “Capacity on Demand” and “ATM Data Service Providers” are what enables the new architecture to provide flexibility as traffic varies.

The quick wins in delivering much needed capacity really come from the urgent application of the current airspace design principles contained in the network functions Regulation. The airspace will be progressively redesigned to release latent capacity by better aligning sectors with traffic flows. To be successful this process will need to be collaborative and introduce greater level of cross-border service provision than the current design.

The AAS is largely quiet on the reforms necessary to achieve the new architecture. The AAS does recognise the need to build on industrial partnerships and to incentivise early movers. If fully realised the proposed architecture would see ANSPs transform from high CAPEX infrastructure providers to OPEX driven service providers with much of the current infrastructure provided by a new breed of competitive entities. This will require fundamental changes to the regulatory framework.

Will the WPG recommendations enable the AAS vision?

The new Wise Persons Group report proposes a new vision for European ATM in 2035 and ten recommendations to achieve it. The vision is:

A customer-focused Single European Sky that meets future needs for aviation services and environmental goals. A safe, seamless, scalable and resilient aviation network will be delivered through digital air traffic management services for all airspace users (civil and military) and passengers.

The words seem different; but the vision for SES does not appear new – except for that one word ‘digital’. Three of the recommendations are designed to support implementation of a ‘Digital European Sky’. These recommendations really echo the findings of the AAS – implement the new architecture, enable ATM Data service providers, reform the performance scheme to incentivise modernisation. The WPG recommendation recognises the need to reform controller licensing and training in line with the AAS.

The other six recommendations fall in to two categories: network centric and simplifying the regulatory framework. The Eurocontrol role as Network Manager, recently renewed for ten years, would be substantially strengthened – with the proposals that the Network Manager is airspace manager, capacity manager and infrastructure manager including taking over the role of SESAR deployment manager from the industry.

In attempting to simplify the regulatory framework, the WPG attempts to square the impossible circle of promoting both stronger economic regulation for some services and promotion of competition for others. At this stage however, greater clarity is needed on how the Network Manager recommendations affect the role of ANSPs to make decisions on the most appropriate form of economic regulation.

Whilst the AAS sets out a collaborative future, the WPG appears to fall back on the premise that collaboration can only be successful if a central manager tells everyone what to do. SES flounders when consensus cannot be achieved. It will be interesting to see if consensus can be built around the WPG report or if member states will fall back on protecting their national ANSPs.

Paul Ravenhill is a director of UK-based ATM consultancy Think Research