At The Crossroads

cross Is the Network Manager the problem; or is it the solution, asks Aimée Turner?

Europe’s Network Manager chief Joe Sultana insists that the Brussels-based organisation has a leading role to play in helping to deliver the Single Sky vision arguing that ‘it forms the heartbeat of the Single European Sky with its emphasis on impartiality and transparency’.

But the Network Manager’s vital signs look weak as it risks becoming the luckless victim of an imminent car crash with a determined ANSP industry heading towards it at full speed.

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The ATM Network Manager function was created by the European Commission in 2011 in an effort to optimise the performance of the European aviation network, or to be more precise boost the airspace performance within a planned Single European Sky environment.

Sultana would no doubt argue that it has fulfilled its duties faithfully allowing maximum access to airspace and air navigation services. The importance of that function – of guaranteeing system-wide flight efficiency as well as cost efficiency, safety and capacity gains – will remain a permanent feature in a complex future 4D trajectory environment – whoever is awarded the role.

All the pertinent actors have today come together to allow the prologue of the Single Sky to commence, be they ANSPs, airports or airlines. Indeed, the establishment of the SESAR Deployment Alliance demonstrates that this broad stakeholder approach is viable. What is now in question is the part that the ANSP industry wants to play going forwards. Should the NM be given quite the star billing it expects as an essential centralised principal presiding over the scene – or should it be hounded out of the theatre altogether?

 

“even it is left relatively unscathed, industry partnerships – or the prospect of them, at least – will enjoy top billing for the foreseeable future. If successful, they could lay the foundations for unprecedented industrial co-operation”

 

Until now the pre-eminent Single Sky institutions – the SESAR Joint Undertaking, the SESAR Deployment Manager and the Network Manager – seem to have been equally diligent in learning their lines, rehearsing for the eventual dénouement of validated technologies.

But will the piece conclude with its original ending? While there is a huge amount of respect for the competence that resides within the NM, questions are being raised over whether its status as a centralised body politically embedded within an intergovernmental organisation such as Eurocontrol should lay claim to the huge potential revenues that the Single Sky will generate.

Scrutiny

The hegemony of Eurocontrol together with the NM is now under intense scrutiny as the European Commission looks not to institutions but increasingly to the ANSPs as the favoured agents of change charged with delivering self-sustaining innovation.

The news that the NM is to undergo an audit is being greeted by some as a harbinger of doom. Others are more sanguine and point out that the examination of the NM’s books was always planned, although they will concede that this does allow other who fancy getting their hands on the NM role an ideal opportunity to make their case.

Even it is left relatively unscathed, industry partnerships – or the prospect of them, at least – will enjoy top billing for the foreseeable future. If successful, they could lay the foundations for an unprecedented level of industrial co-operation and make up for the lacklustre impact of the Functional Airspace Block or FAB approach.

That attempt to harmonise airspace on geographic lines was introduced to jolt Europe’s ANSPs out of their complacency but are now waning as an active policy instrument. Only a handful of ANSPs have escaped infringement proceedings and any threat issuing from Brussels seems to have been met with a cursory two-fingered gesture – a resounding raspberry at best.

The European Commission will acknowledge that each and every member state remains keen to retain its ANSP mainly for reasons of sovereignty and security. “We now have to find a new way to defragment,” a Commission official tells Air Traffic Management.

While FABs will remain important in terms of airspace organisation their appeal now pales alongside the more industrially driven approach that is emerging. “The future of the industry should be in the hands of the industry itself and is the best way to determine a successful future. They are responsible for the business and how to provide services under the condition of the performance scheme,” says the Commission.

Alliance

Back in the day, it was only the more forward-thinking, commercially minded ANSPs that were formulating plans for forging those industry partnerships. Now that the SESAR Deployment Alliance has taken form, this approached has gained comprehensive support among ANSPs with more rushing to join the ATM constituent – the A6 club – which is, surely, due for an imminent name change.

 

“centralised services are still on the table in the framework of SESAR, insists a European Commission that is suddenly mindful that due care is needed not to impact on the industry’s willingness to produce sensible solutions itself”

 

The approach has also been taken up by a Commission forced to think fast and retain some credibility in its efforts to keep the SES vision on track. Just as the potential of the FAB concept – which admittedly still provides some ‘geometry’ to support ANSP collaboration – proved limited, so too the infamous Centralised Services are failing to live up to their maximum policy potential.

Another heavy-handed cause célèbre in which the in-house services of an ANSP were to be summarily handed over to another to provide, their chief defender has been Eurocontrol who has seemed persistently reluctant to acknowledge the lack of box office appeal for its own offerings.

Centralised Services are still on the table in the framework of SESAR, insists a Commission that is suddenly mindful that due care is needed not to impact on the industry’s willingness to produce sensible solutions itself. “We have to make sure that we do not remove the business from the industry,” the Commission notes.

The NM is without doubt fulfilling a worthy role in preventing vital capacity from being wasted but the stakes will be higher in a Single Sky landscape. Today, differential unit rates still prevail which conspire to distort planned routes, underlying just how limited its impact on European aviation performance remains. A stronger central service provider in a post-2020 scenario will surely need to be able to both incentivise and punish airspace performance both in the air and the ground.

Meanwhile, in terms of governance, some believe institutional arrangements could be far better streamlined if the SDM and NM were governed by a single body.

 

“two schools of thought emerging: a possible merger of the NM with the SDM or, alternatively, as it is a public authority managing a scarce resource, the NM could remain an independent entity with tweaks made to its governance”

 

Philippe Merlo, head of ATM at Eurocontrol, meets that challenge head-on. “In terms of the recent discussions over establishing an industry-led parallel to the NM, I don’t believe it is possible. What we have achieved here with the NM is so successful and involves such an amount of effort and expertise that it would represent a huge waste of time and money to recreate instead of building on it to push SESAR Functionalities further.”

“While it is important to bring the NM, the SDM and SJU together to solve the many overlapping areas, is it possible to do that within a SDM framework? I don’t believe so as it is an industry-led body. In the NM you have responsibilities that are directly connected to ANS provision with additional responsibilities at governmental level such as crisis management, airspace policing and at the ‘diplomatic’ level. Furthermore there is the military dimension. The military would not be ready to accept a wholly industry-led body.”

The Commission says there are two schools of thought emerging: a possibly merger of the NM with the SDM with both entities put under the full governance of industry or, alternatively, because it is a public authority managing a scarce resource, the NM could remain an independent entity with tweaks made to its governance.

Ownership

Interestingly, the Commission is not excluding the possibility of the SDM eventually becoming a financially self-sustaining body post-2020. “Again, the industry should demonstrate that it is able to take full ownership of this entity. SESAR is the main vehicle with which to modernise ATM – more so than FABs – so this is a golden opportunity for the industry to demonstrate that it can produce solid results,” says the official.

In this scenario, the SESAR Deployment Alliance is seen as a possible precursor body which could be accorded extra legal powers and even an enlarged scope of activity, for example, within the scope of centralised service provision. It would effectively become a European procurement agency operating within a performance scheme framework.

The Brussels vision is one where each state retains its own ANSP which is free to procure services provided by others. The Commission is also following closely the success of the ENAV privatisation which would make the Italian ANSP the only provider in the world to be quoted on a stock exchange. This opening up of an ANSP’s capital could well create new possibilities for governance mechanisms.

The Commission insists it is neutral on ownership: “The question is whether a provider – whether publicly or privately owned – can meet the challenges that technology such as space-based surveillance is going to present. It is a question of mindset.”

That market-based mindset could prove crucial for the future of the NM too. The Commission expects a decision to be made before the end of next year on its post-2020 incarnation when the third reference period takes effect and will be looking to the NM audit to throw more light on its cost efficiency in relation to its tasks and to help iron out any governance issues.

“The reform of Eurocontrol is a major issue in addition to the revamping of the NM. If we find an industrial solution to the Eurocontrol Central Flow Management Unit – which provides the NM service – we will then have to concentrate on making best use of the remaining asset,” says the Commission.

 

“the smart money is riding on some fundamental changes being applied to the governance of the Network Manager, heralding a new era that will allow an energised industry to benefit from fresh commercial opportunities”

 

For his part, Eurocontrol’s Philippe Merlo says Eurocontrol is in no way intimidated by the prospect of an audit which he calls ‘wholly legitimate’. “We should not be afraid. We perform well and we are ready to participate and be open,” he insists.

The smart money is riding on some fundamental changes being applied to NM governance, heralding a new era that will allow an energised industry to benefit from fresh commercial opportunities.

In view of those determined efforts to wrest its highly lucrative flow management business, there are some interesting alternatives actively being tabled which both play to the NM’s strengths and yet which may still appeal to the industry. One such option could be to offer the NM’s brand of ATFM around the world and combine that conceptual framework in a consortium approach with one of Europe’s more commercialised ANSPs.

That would see selective flow and capacity management expertise offered to regions such as the Gulf states which could figure in the imminent Aviation Strategy negotiations. Essentially, this would be tantamount to offering ‘collaborative’ ATFM rather than a global ATFM approach but how well that will fare versus potentially game-changing distributed flight plan models such as the newly launched SkyFusion will be interesting to see.

Another option which could provide a stay of execution would be to think far more creatively and to come up with skills transfer initiatives. The current Commission mandate limits Eurocontrol’s remit to simply air traffic management but its supporters argue that why should that not extend further to embrace enhancing connectivity with other transport modes at a network level and transform Eurocontrol’s NM into a European multi-modal efficiency architect?

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