Off Course

The European ATM Master Plan has undergone major revision and that has implications for the speed and scope of modernisation efforts.

Steve Zerkowitz asks whether Europe is doomed never to learn the lesson of recent history

ATM experts with even moderately long memories will still remember EATCHIP and ATM2000+, Europe’s earlier and only moderately successful, attempts to reform its air traffic management system.

Indeed, had those initiatives achieved their aims, we would not have needed SESAR in its present form. But they did not deliver what we all had hoped for and SESAR came along together with the expectation that the lessons had been learned and this time will be different. But is it?

The stakes are enormous. According to estimates of the European Commission, the full and swift deployment of the technologies embedded in SESAR has the potential to create 328,000 jobs and saving 50 million tons of CO2. Delays would be halved, flight times would drop by 10 per cent on average, user charges would be down.

If however a 10-year delay in implementing SESAR is encountered, the aviation industry will face a loss of around €268 billion, 190,000 fewer jobs will be created and around 55 million fewer tons of CO2 emissions will be saved.

How does anyone expect to be able to create a usable plan that describes the details of the gas range in the kitchen but not the kitchen itself?

A cornerstone of SESAR implementation is the ATM Master Plan. As its name says, it is the coordinating instrument for the future air traffic management environment in Europe. As such, it is a flagship product that one would expect to incorporate all the lessons learned in the past and all the best practices from the present. But is it?

Experts have long maintained that a major weakness of the ATM Master Plan as it is currently written is that it covers only SESAR, the technology pillar, and not the Single European Sky (SES) as a whole. How does anyone expect to be able to create a usable plan that describes the details of the gas range in the kitchen but not the kitchen itself? This problem has been left untouched again during the update cycle just completed.

High-Level

There was however a much more worrying development. The high-level Single European Sky (SES) goals are the drivers for and justification of investing in the SES vision. The SES high-level goals and the original Master Plan both identified 2020 as the date by which the goals must be achieved. During the recent update, the Single Sky Committee replaced this date with text that said the high level goals would need to be achieved when traffic levels will have doubled in the future, taking 2005 as the baseline. Earlier estimates put this date somewhere in 2033… that is a 13-year delay compared to the original plan!

We have already discussed the likely impact of a 10-year delay, yet somehow a 13-year delay was not seen as a problem by the progenitors of this change proposal. Even if we consider a traffic growth curve that is flatter than originally estimated, the loss in efficiency and the unnecessary costs would be enormous.

It was not by accident that the airspace users were so upset by this development that at first they planned to refuse supporting the ATM Master Plan. Following their protests, in the end the proposal that would have resulted in the 13-year delay in achieving the high level goals was withdrawn and the original date, 2020, reinstated.

What does this tell us? During EATCHIP and ATM2000+ similar hiccups were encountered and in the end, both projects ground to a halt with very little to show for the effort.

ATM problems were consequently not really solved – alleviation over the past years came mainly from reduced traffic levels caused by the economic crisis – and the confidence of airspace users in the ability of European ATM to reform itself all but evaporated.

Timely

Delays in the implementation of the Functional Airspace Blocks (FAB) and the Single European Sky did little to reestablish this confidence and hence the timely realisation of SESAR assumed added significance.

How should the industry relate to an ATM Master Plan which, in spite of having been criticised for it, still only covers technology and which, even worse, can so easily become the target of political interference?

This is not an easy question to answer. Especially so when we consider that the contents and aims of ATM2000+ were very similar to the Single European Sky, yet it failed to properly deliver for reasons very similar to what we see happening today: expert warnings ignored, political interference, stakeholders not living up to commitments…

SESAR is supposed to implement the ATM Master Plan but so far has had little success in this direction. All claims to the contrary, there are no usable validation results on which business cases can be developed. During the update exercise, remaining problems notwithstanding, real improvements were made to the Master Plan. Even a dedicated portal was set up to enable drill down of information and full traceability. But will this be enough to restore confidence in the whole exercise?

Steve Zerkowitz is chief executive of BluSky Services Group.

Read more: Single Sky tech a decade late

Posted in Features, SESAR, Single European Sky

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