On 02-01-2013, in Viewpoint, by steve
It is customary to look back at the end of the year to take stock and then to make all kinds of promises to ourselves for the new year… Promises that we seldom keep.
European air traffic management had a tumultuous year culminating in grumbling by the airspace users on a previously unheard scale and indeed language. The FAB’s were criticized fiercely, air/ground digital link services will be late and the much hyped new version of the SESAR Master-plan barely made it…
So, what promises will Europe make to its long suffering airspace users for 2013? Words are only words of course and we all know the value of New Year promises… But then what can we realistically expect from 2013?
To understand 2012, we do need to go back a little further in history. For the better part of two decades, Europe has had air traffic management improvement projects that did generate new ideas, new solutions which even managed to evolve as traffic patterns and aircraft capabilities were evolving… on paper. Because in reality, very little of the new ideas were put into every-day operational use. The projects failed one after the other. EATCHIP, ATM2000+ went down the drain and the best proof of their failure is the existence of SESAR. Had the previous projects achieved their objectives, there would never have been a need for a monster project like SESAR.
It was of course very convenient to blame EUROCONTROL for the failures and subsequently the only institution in Europe with real ATM knowledge was gutted and basically made all but irrelevant.
Other than a few mavericks, yours truly included, nobody spoke up to tell the world the real reason for all those project failures: that it were recalcitrant States and ANSPs that actually not only threw the wrench into the works but also kept it there to make sure change was all but impossible.
Then the Functional Airspace Blocks (FAB) came about. The original idea, though reflecting legacy airspace based thinking, was not so bad: if Europe as a whole cannot put its house in order, carve it up into 2-3 big blocks of airspace and make sure things happen in there… Of course there was a basic contradiction between wanting to eliminate fragmentation in European ATM and then creating a different kind of fragmentation but a bit of pragmatic thinking was certainly in order.
But what happened? Before anyone knew it, nine (9!!!!) FABs grew out of the European political soil, all reflecting political considerations with very little to do with the real needs of traffic flows. I will not bore you with the detailed history of the FABs… However, their current reality deserves a few words.
EUROCONTOL and projects like ATM2000+ were often criticized for being endless talking-shops where people came together to discuss things only to find that certain major providers were dead set against most everything… Maintaining the status quo became an unwritten aim of most of the projects. A very good example is air/ground digital link services. EUROCONTROL’s Petal trials were so successful that American Airlines, fed up with the way the FAA was handling data link, asked to be part of Petal and was a staunch supporter throughout. Petal was almost killed twice by certain European States… had it not been for the extremely forceful intervention of IATA, they would have done so. That was more than a decade ago… What did we see in 2012? The same States announced that in spite of a European Union mandate, they will not be ready until 2019!
The meetings in ATM2000+ may have been talking-shops but they were not such because there wasn’t sufficient expertise within EUROCONTROL. It was the lack of executive powers that allowed States to turn project meetings into talking-shops… One of the ridiculous effects of this was that no matter what the deadline for a certain action required from a State was, they were always on time. Nobody ever was late. Not by a single day or a single hour!!! How did they do it? In the meeting, when reviewing the required implementation dates, if a State reported that they would be late, the deadline was simply changed to one they thought they could meet!
But back to the FABs, all nine of them. The working structure inside the FABs is very similar to what projects like ATM2000+ used to have except that a few new formations, like FAB councils and the like, have been added to give the highest level managers a forum to discuss things. So, instead of one place for potential talking-shops, we now have nine. Any claim that FAB meetings are not like the old EUROCONTROL talking- shop meetings needs to be taken with a grain of salt… The progress, or rather lack of it, so fiercely criticized by the airspace users at the end of 2012 would seem to indicate that the propensity for ineffective meetings is alive and well.
In most matters ATM, it is easy to see what is wrong. Less easy to spot what may actually be missing. If you ask experts to explain how the FABs co-ordinate between each other, they usually return a blank stare. Or, at best, they tell you that adjacent FABs do talk to each other. The sad fact is, there is no effective structure to ensure that the nine FABs actually do things that benefit European ATM as a whole. There is no guarantee that one day we will not wake up to the fact that there are fundamental differences in requirements set by the FABs… The warning sign? In more and more meetings one hears the following sentence: this needs to be agreed at least on FAB level… Aha… and the European level? Bingo…
So, here we are on the first working day of 2013 and what can we say? How will this year be better for ATM than the previous one? What is being done to ensure that towards the end of the new year there will be no need to write even angrier letters about the failures that refuse to go away?
The answer is, mighty little. And the reason, like so often, is political.
The European Commission has threatened States with all kinds of penalties if they do not make the FABs work but this still does not address the basic problem: Europe needs an ATM authority that has the power to make things happen. Not nine little fiefdoms that think they know everything better… Europe needs a EUROCONTROL that is compact, professional, efficient and which sets out the agenda, the plan both operationally and from a technology perspective, which works closely with the airspace users to define how best to meet their requirements. States should only have one task: execute the plan. The FABs may even remain, but they would only have one goal: discuss how best to implement the European plan on time and within budget.
With the European authority keeping a close tab on progress, problems would be identified early and remedies (not excuses!!!) agreed.
Obfuscation and political double talk would be banned in this approach… Utopia?
It need not be. If finally the route causes of previous failures are addressed and instead of window dressing real changes are made in the way air traffic management is done in Europe, there is hope. Then there is hope also for SESAR which, make no mistake, will be the biggest failure yet if the environment in which it is to be implemented is left in its current dismal state of disrepair.
However uncomfortable, it is time to call a spade a spade!