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European ATM: the final frontier May 2000 Download PDF

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European air traffic management (ATM) is, as usual, in a state of crisis, as the widening gap between capacity and demand results in worsening flight delays. However, the European Commission has made ATM reform a priority and has called for the creation of a "Single European Sky". Finally, something may be changing.

A recent European Aviation Club meeting in Brussels provided a useful forum for reviewing the problems and elaborating the EC’s solution. The causes of the crisis are well documented:

  • In the EU there are some 65 largely state–owned control centres with limited international co–operation;
  • Very little system commonality exists between the centres;
  • A shortage of over 1,000 air traffic controllers;
  • ATC has been stressed by strong traffic growth and the move towards higher frequencies operated with smaller aircraft;
  • Service provision has always been supply driven; and
  • The residual tension between military and civil use of airspace.

Several attempts were made to define the costs caused by ATC delays. The costs to the airlines arise from additional fuel burned by re–routings, time spent in holding patterns, in efficient aircraft utilisation and additional staffing (for example Sabena employs eight people dedicated to adjusting flight plans to try and minimise the impact of ATC delays)

Furthermore, these problems are becoming more rather than less critical for airlines as they rely more and more on hub and spoke systems. An ATC delay for one or two aircraft has an impact on a whole wave of connecting flights.

The way forward

The costs fall however not just for the airlines but also for the passengers. At the UK CAA rate of Euro 60 per minute, IATA estimates that the annual cost of delays in Europe to passengers is Euro 4.2bn. The EU’s Ben Van Houtte estimated the total annual cost to airlines and passengers at between Euro 5–10bn. Importantly the EU argue that delays affects the credibility of its air transport liberalisation programme. The need for a body to implement the necessary structural reforms was recognised and that the EC as the body that should take up the challenge. The aim of the EU it seems is to move away from the current system of "soft laws" that encompass ATC provision.

To achieve an effective solution will require the EU to be granted the necessary powers to impose the changes to move from the current "legacy system" to the Single European Sky. This is being sought by Ben Van Houtte, as Head of Unit of the Single European Sky task force, who will present his report on ATC issues to the Commission in June.

The Commission has been frustrated for some time in its attempts to gain influence. The EU’s attempts to become more closely aligned with Eurocontrol have been frustrated perversely by the UK and Spanish governments' dispute over Gibraltar. Once that issue has been resolved, or at least disengaged from the ATC debate, the EU will encourage Eurocontrol to act as an EU agency with rule–making powers.

Ben Van Houtte’s report will recommend that the Commission produces legislation for:

  • Delay reporting;
  • Airspace design and management;
  • EU membership of Eurocontrol;
  • Establishment of the concept of free routing;
  • Separation of roles between ATC regulators and service providers.

The separation of the public policy and regulatory functions from the service provider has almost universal approval. The regulator will be expected to have responsibility in four areas:

  • Safety;
  • Economic regulation, giving market discipline measured by targets set for quality and price;
  • Airspace regulation, promoting maximum use of a scarce resource; and
  • Setting technical standards and rules covering inter–operability.

This should provide the users with greater transparency and make the service providers more market responsive. The example of Germany’s Deutsche Flugsicherung GmbH (DFS) was instructive in this case. DFS was corporatised in 1993 and remains a non–profit making 100% government body. It has its own AAA credit–rating which has allowed it to be entirely self–financing. It has embarked on a simplification of ATC in Germany which will see the number of control centres being reduced from six to three. Despite being in one of the highest density traffic markets, the average delay per flight in DFS controlled airspace in 1999 was 1.5 minutes versus an European average of 5.3 minutes.

The UK ATC service provider, NATS, is being prepared for a form of semi–privatisation, called a Public Private Initiative (PPI)which will see some 50% of the shares in the corporatised entity sold to, most likely, a private consortium. Both NATS and DFS are keen to explore opportunities in the future that will see them acquiring equity stakes in other service providers.

Quick fixes and long term problems

It should be noted that there is strong political and union opposition to the PPI initiative in the UK. And in France there is a more general rejection to the concept of ATC commercialisation. At the Aviation Club meeting, Henri- Georges Baudry, Director of the French Direction de la Navigation Aérienne. He argued that ATC was a public service and not a commercial business and made the following points. His view was that there was no proof that the corporatisation of service providers has generated any benefits, and in any case airlines would not be willing to pay in advance for improvements in ATC capacity. The EU has identified 30 control centres that need additional investment. These control centres are responsible for creating critical bottlenecks particularly over Switzerland and northern Italy. The fact that a small amount of additional spending can produce major improvements suggests a very high return on investment.

The introduction of commonality of licences for controllers would help prevent some of the current shortages experienced in some countries. As mobility of labour is an EU mantra this is expected to be given a high priority.

The Single European Sky will need the transition from national ATC centres to a system under one umbrella. As control centres handle military as well as civil traffic, national interest issues are an inevitable stumbling block. Delegation of the responsibility to run ATC to another country is a major issue (at present only Luxembourg does not have its own ATC system).

Some progress is however being made in this area. CEATS is a new control centre which is to be located in Vienna that will handle traffic over not only Austria but also Slovenia, Czech Republic and four other east European countries.

Technology may also prove a major stumbling block. Like buying a new phone or computer, there is always a temptation to wait awhile for new technology. The concept that airspace design should be a continuum is noble but with so many interested parties (governments, ICAO, IATA, AEA, airframe manufacturers and airlines, not to mention the makers of the control systems themselves) setting one standard is going to be hard to say the least.


One more problem is that the EC is also campaigning for authority to govern all air safety issues in the Community through its proposed European Air Safety Agency (EASA). Whereas it would appear that that the EC has strong backing for its initiatives in the ATC arena, it is less clear whether governments will back the EASA initiative. A problem arises however if the EU links the two initiatives with a proposal to make a newly empowered Eurocontrol part of EASA. Both NATS and DFS proposed that in due course airlines and passengers could benefit from the introduction of competition in the ATC arena. Dieter Kaden, Chairman and CEO of DFS envisaged competition in three areas:

  • Control of aerodromes — where there was already competition through airport privatisations
  • En–route control in lower airspace — where national governments might put out to tender the running of their control centres
  • En–route control in upper airspace — where service providers could compete against each other.

For example an airline flying across the Atlantic may be able to choose between a small number of service providers to control its flights.

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