EU auditors to cast doubt over SESAR efforts on Europe’s ATM

An influential report due to be published next week will question how effective EU funding has actually been in the rollout of Single European Sky technology and will criticise the lack of means by which to gauge the programme’s true impact.

Air traffic management has traditionally been developed and provided at a national level. The need to ensure interoperability across all EU states led to the launch of the SESAR modernisation project, the technology element of the wider Single European Sky policy. Overall, the EU has committed €3.8 billion to SESAR between 2005 and 2020.

The special report by the European Court of Auditors (ECA) – due out on June 25 – will focus on how well the European Commission has managed the deployment of SESAR – principally through the Brussels-based SESAR Deployment Manager – and how that deployment is helping to meet the objectives of the Single European Sky policy. The audit team was also tasked with examining whether the EU’s participation was justified and whether it contributed to improving the performance of European air traffic management significantly.

“While the EU’s regulatory intervention was needed and has added value, the report is expected to question the usefulness of EU funding,” said the ECA in a statement. Auditors are also expected to single out the lack of measurement of actual results and will likely make a number of recommendations to achieve better results.

The report will follow several controversial recommendations from the so-called ‘wise persons group’ that was set up by the European Commission to consider the views of air traffic management stakeholders and produce proposals on the future direction of European aviation.

That group’s long term proposals have already unsettled many within the industry – especially a proposal for a significantly increased and centralised role for the Eurocontrol Network Manager ‘to make sure all air traffic managers act in the common European interest’.

Industry continues to struggle to match demand with sufficient capacity especially in the peak summer periods with 2018 distinguishing itself as a year of record delays and cancellations. Forecasts predict that by 2040, 1.5 million flights may be grounded – meaning that 160 million passengers will not be able to fly – if nothing is done to fix capacity bottlenecks and accelerate ATM modernisation.

Longer term measures contained in the WPG report could also see service quality linked to charges in an effort to reward innovation; an upper airspace system with a common route charging system to stimulate the most efficient routeing and even a capacity ‘market’ where the Eurocontrol Network Manager would effectively direct the operations of the region’s ATC providers.

Industry reaction was muted with the A6 Alliance of the major European providers objecting to any idea of the dismantling of the SESAR Deployment Manager in favour of an infrastructure manager function within the Eurocontrol Network Manager, saying the existing industry-for-industry model had acquitted itself well as it was ‘best equipped to manage the complex transition to a Single European Airspace System’. The A6 Alliance members have applauded the specific progress that the SESAR Deployment Manager has made in complex areas such as the datalink services recovery programme and ADS-B equipage ‘which remained unsolved until the industry took the lead’.

Both report recommendations will be addressed by European transport ministers at the June Transport Council and also at a high level aviation industry event in Finland on 12 September, organised by the Commission. At that meeting, the Commission will likely announce either a draft legislative package or a process that will lead to a draft package which observers believe is more likely considering the lacklustre industry sentiment.

The current SDM is contractually committed until the end of 2020 with its industry partnership agreement extending to 2023.