Drivers for change
The chances are that you've been discussing the evolution of the Single European Sky in recent weeks. The relatively downbeat report auditing the outcomes of the first set of Single European Sky legislation ("a changed culture, but still a fragmented airspace" [ 1 ] has led to the release of the Airspace Architecture Study [ 2 ] (commissioned by the European Parliament and produced by the SESAR JU) and the Wise Persons' Group Report [ 3 ] , both of them stimulating plenty of comment. But these are not the only drivers for change.
We appear to be in a 10-year cycle where the industry and its political overseers are driven by service impacts. In 1999, we had a capacity crunch, leading to the SES. By 2008-9, the aftermath of the financial crisis led to a focus on cost efficiency and performance. As we move towards the peak summer season of 2019, we are likely to see the next capacity crunch, partially caused by the ATCOs recruited in the mid-late 1990s now retiring. The peak season delays across Europe will prioritise politicians' attention on the Single European Sky once more.
The short-term response will see a growth in ATCO recruitment. This is a challenge, as ATCO recruitment can be anything but short-term, with training and validation taking from 24 to 60 months from ab-initio. It is also difficult to reverse if the traffic growth is not sustained. We could therefore foresee continued peak season delays for the coming two to three years, exacerbated by weather. If this happens, traditional political concerns such as sovereignty of airspace, national security (military), and regional jobs may take a back seat to demands for change.
The solutions proposed look at both capacity, and capacity-on-demand. Capacity enhancements are envisaged using increased automation and trajectory predictability, whilst flexibility is improved by making service provision more fungible (ie transferable and the same in each instance across the EU).
Whilst the end scenario is relatively compelling, the path there is anything but. Major issues need to be resolved regarding the balance between EU-wide services (eg flight data as a service, enhanced ATFCM using business trajectories) and local air traffic service provision, particularly around the alignment of governance, liability, funding (eg from charges) and resource allocation. The centralising argument has long been fought, and now more than ever needs objective clarity. As a starter, how about clear analysis showing that EU-wide services are either required (cannot be delivered any other way), economically beneficial and risk reducing?
The Commission's challenge, as it seeks to consult on how the SES should move forwards, is to set out a prioritised plan with multiple factors incrementally evolving, while maintaining a clear vision for the future and addressing near-term concerns. We'll know more by early autumn.
1. SES audit report
3. Report of the Wise Persons Group on the future of the Single European Sky