European Air Traffic Management – A historic clash of concept and politics

On 05-07-2012, in SESAR's Palace, by steve

Although you would never know it from reading the rather upbeat communications from the Functional Airspace Block (FAB) and SESAR folks, ATM in Europe is heading towards some major turbulence. That the EC’s Single Sky Committee very nearly managed to kick the deadline of meeting the Single Sky (SES) high-level goals a further 13 years into the future (to 2033!!!) is only one indication of how the whole structure is creaking under the relentless drive of the backward thinkers hell bent on keeping things from happening.

But there is more. What about a collision between a black hole and a complete galaxy? Astronomers amongst you will say this means complete annihilation for the galaxy. Now replace black hole with FAB and the galaxy with SESAR. I am not kidding!

Various high level managers at the European air traffic management organizations hasten to point out that SESAR has always been envisaged as being based on the FAB idea, that they are completely compatible with each other. Quite apart from the not negligible fact that this is simply not true, such claims also show just how little some people seem to understand the difference between the FAB idea and what SESAR represents.

What SESAR is aiming to introduce is a set of paradigm changing concepts, among them Trajectory Based Operations (TBO). I will not go into the details of TBO in this article, if you are interested, read more about it here and here. Let it suffice to say that we left out any mention of FABs in the original SESAR concept of operations for a very good reason. The kind of fragmentation represented by the FABs is not only not needed under the TBO environment of SESAR, it is a hindrance that can potentially kill any hope for true TBO.

What are the Functional Airspace Blocks or FABs? They are most certainly not an air traffic management concept or method of working or even an idea that would make things work better by definition. FABs are in fact a sad admission that Europe did not succeed in creating a continent-wide air traffic management environment that would have come anywhere near satisfying the users’ needs. So, in order to make a little progress, some poor soul somewhere came up with what might appear to be a pragmatic approach. If Europe’s Air Navigation Service Providers as a whole cannot be made to work together properly, lets beat them into a few small groups, focused around newly defined blocks of airspace that have similar user requirements in the hope that these groupings will be more effective in working together in a sensible way.

So, for starters, FABs are not an ATM concept but a political construct aimed at getting the ANSPs to cooperate properly at least on a group by group basis.

If you had any doubt about the FABs being political animals, just look at their number. An ATM concept based approach, if it needed FABs at all, would have resulted in maximum three of the damn things. In actual fact, we have nine! Considering Europe’s size and traffic patterns, this shows clearly how political interests rather than air traffic management considerations were driving the establishment of FABs.

The very name of these things is a dead giveaway of the age of the idea. It is legacy, airspace based thinking where we create nice, pre-cooked blocks of airspaces and then massage the flights to fit our handiwork. The exact opposite of what Trajectory Based Operations is all about… Under TBO, airspace and services are created to accommodate the trajectories without those latter suffering under legacy airspace management techniques some people are so proud of.

Looking at the various FABs is an interesting exercise in itself. UK/Ireland is one of the FABs… Why am I not surprised? They were a block apart anyway and perhaps this is part of the reason why this was the first FAB that actually started to operate. But what are they doing? Well, let’s just say that they are not doing anything they should not be doing anyway, FAB or no FAB. Or, we could turn this around and say that if they were not doing what they are doing, they should be punished for squandering the airspace users’ money…

Most of the other FABs, as befits good political organizations, spent upwards of two years to figure out the legal complexities of how the limited number of ANSPs in a FAB should work together and in all that time little attention was paid to actually progressing ATM cooperation. When they published their ATM plans, these looked more like relics from the previous century than blueprints for the future. The targets set down fall way short of what had already been agreed (though never realized) in projects like EATCHIP and ATM2000+.

Of course there is a major difference. While ATM2000+ was supposed to be driving the whole of Europe, the FAB plans are limited to single FABs with the flavors and colors changing at the FAB boundary. Don’t believe it? Well, you better. Some FABs are busy writing a concept of operations for themselves. Nine FABs, nine CONOPS… There is no super-FAB to tell them this is all wrong.

But there is more. In the past at EUROCOPNTROL meetings we heard often that a given issue had to have a European solution and getting European agreement was not always easy. Hell, most of the time it was damn difficult. You would think that with the introduction of FABs, getting agreement on FAB level would be easier. No sir! What you hear these days is that “this still has to be agreed on FAB level…” and, surprise, surprise, getting that agreement is not so easy at all. But here again there is a big difference. Once something has been agreed on the FAB level, it still needs to be agreed on the European level… except that there is no really effective mechanism to do that. This is the new European fragmentation that is worse than anything we have ever had before.

The original establishment of the FABs was delayed by several years due to the recalcitrant ANSPs who, initially, viewed the whole idea as an attack on their sovereignty. It took time for them to realize that they were being given the chance of a lifetime, the chance to finally rid themselves of EUROCONTROL and the need to act on a European level. A FAB, properly handled, is like a castle on the top of a hill, it is impossible to conquer while it can do anything it wants as long as it stays within its walls.

This is not true, you say, the SES mandates will take care of that… Well, just think of the mandate for the implementation of air/ground digital link services. Both ground and air has to equip… good. But the actual use of the service has not been mandated due to pressure from the lords of the castles. This is not a minor issue… It makes the whole mandate totally useless.

Anyway, had the FABs been implemented soon after they were originally proposed, what little benefit they may have had would have been amortized by now and with the coming of SESAR and trajectory based operations, the gradual disbanding of the FABs could now be on the agenda. Instead, people are trying to corrupt SESAR to fit the FABs…

As it is, European air traffic management is faced with a cruel dilemma. There are nine fiefdoms on the continent, most of which are just now starting to flex their muscles while the truly paradigm changing program, SESAR is moving towards introducing a concept for which the FAB-like fragmentation is totally alien.

It is not sufficient to say that SESAR has always been FAB-based. This is not true and as we have seen, the situation is not about reconciling a number of different concepts. The problem here is finding a way of cost-effectively neutralizing a politically motivated, albeit unintentional, fragmentation scenario to make place for an operational concept under which fragmentation can no longer exist.

Will the European Commission, the SESAR Joint Undertaking and the ANSPs rise to the challenge? Instead of parroting the “SESAR is FAB friendly” mantra, will they be professional enough to admit that a fundamental course correction is required for the FABs if SESAR and its advanced concepts are to survive?

The alternative is pretty scary… if you are in the business of operating aircraft that is.

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