A time for change at the Borealis Alliance

ATM had the opportunity to speak with François Huet about his recent move to the Borealis Alliance in the midst of an unsure and challenging time in our industry.  Today’s post is part one of a two part interview.

Q – Can you explain the role of the Borealis Alliance Policy and Regulatory Director? Is this a role with a set term that changes regularly or was this an open role at the Alliance?

A – This is a permanent post. My predecessor was Reynir Sigurdsson, from Iceland, who is now the Executive Director of the Alliance. The aim for the Alliance is to have a senior and permanent representative in Brussels who can gather intelligence on the key issues being developed there, and to provide strategic, or when needed, immediate advice or information to the CEOs or their collaborators. In this way the Alliance has a possibility to develop and promote positions and speak in Brussels as a single and therefore more powerful voice. The other key part of the role is to make the Alliance more visible in Brussels, via a local presence and promote the many Alliance achievements. The Borealis Alliance ANSPs are in the leading league in terms of performance achieved, innovation and cooperation, and I believe that this deserves to be better known in the European ecosystem.

Q – It’s been about 30 days since you took over your new role at the Alliance.  What have those 30 days been like given the state of our industry at the moment?

A – The situation is unprecedented. Changing jobs and taking up the new duties from home, during a strict lockdown situation in Brussels was “challenging”. On the other hand, I immediately understood why the Borealis Alliance has an office and a representative on location, with easy, albeit temporarily virtual, access to the various European institutions and key players. Already living in Brussels with deep community connections, I could quickly establish new relationships and contribute to the various initiatives undertaken to help the aviation community survive in the short term, and facilitate a “return to normal” scenario. I was very privileged to have the immediate task of diving into crucial issues such as the performance scheme and setting up of performance plans for the period 2020-2024, as well as the rescue plans initiated by EUROCONTROL for both airspace users and air navigation service providers (ANSPs).

Q – Given what you’ve learned in your first 30 days, what will be your top three priorities for the remainder of 2020?

A – For the very short term and probably until the end of the year or more, the entire aviation community will mainly focus on its survival, and this is true for the ANSPs too. Even though they are in a monopolistic situation, at least for en-route services, they are also under severe financial threat and several have put a large portion of their staff on furlough. Others have terminated many staff contracts which, in the case of highly skilled and experienced people, may make the return to normal more complicated. Several important system upgrades are currently on hold, and this cannot stay at a standstill for too long.  ANSPs also need to provide minimum service during the crisis and preserve their capability to provide full and safe services when traffic comes back. As a consequence, the efforts to provide minimum continuity of service and preparing the return to normal cannot afford to fail.

The next priority will be the environmental dimension of aviation and air navigation services in particular. The European Green Deal was already becoming a key driver of our work before COVID-19. The current context makes it even more important at a time when the public opinion is not ready to accept public help being granted to the aviation community, be it airlines or air navigation service providers, without a visible environmental counterpart. Re-prioritisation of projects towards maximum decarbonisation of aviation must be intensified, even though the largest part of the improvements will be achieved by aircraft technology and in particular sustainable fuels. Such expected benefits can only deliver if flight trajectories are optimised and delays minimised, and this is where ANSPs can demonstrate that they take their share of the effort.

Finally, but I would not like to sound cynical, I think that we should not “waste a good crisis”, to quote a Director General. ANSPs rightly stated that the radical and accelerated evolution towards digitalisation and a new airspace architecture in a high traffic growth context was equivalent to asking the ANSPs to “change a wheel of the car whilst still driving”. Now that traffic is so low, and next after the environmental effort, I believe that it may be the right moment to intensify efforts towards infrastructure / CNS rationalisation. There are several reasons for this:

  • the low-traffic context is favourable to this
  • this would contribute to the “operational excellence” project contained in the transition plan of the Airspace Architecture Study and pave the way towards increased cross-border cooperation and service provision
  • this is likely to decrease ANSP costs and thus promote participation in the cost-reduction effort needed to survive the crisis and deliver high-quality performance plans for the period 2020-2024.

Q – How do you see your background with the SESAR JU helping you to be effective in your new role?

A – Having been the Master Plan Programme Manager, I had the chance to be deeply involved from the onset, in the work on the development and delivery of the Airspace Architecture Study and its Transition Plan. Therefore, I could very quickly propose and secure the approval by the Alliance of a common position on the re-prioritisation of the Master Plan rollout, to focus in the short term on infrastructure rationalisation and environment, without losing sight of the need to deliver the “digital European sky”, which is as needed today than it was before the COVID-19 crisis. The resilience capability, the scalability it will bring, will enable the air traffic management (ATM) world to better tackle crises like the one of today. A more cost-efficient infrastructure will deliver better and greener services and will also be essential to secure aviation’s wealth – and reputation in the public opinion. My knowledge of SESAR’s “innovation pipeline” and the challenges ahead (such as shortening the industrialisation phase and rewarding “first movers”) are, hopefully, likely to allow me to facilitate the decision-making of the ANSPs composing the Borealis Alliance.

For the last 5 years François Huet has been serving within the SESAR Joint Undertaking (SESAR JU) team as Master Plan Programme Manager and has managed the 2015 and 2018-2020 ATM Master Plan update campaigns. Previously he was Head of the Cabinet Office of the French Civil Aviation Authority (DGAC), a member of the EUROCONTROL.