Fragmentation then and now…

On 23-07-2012, in FAB News, by cleo

In previous writings on the problems we see with the concept of Functional Airspace Blocks (FAB), the authors have often compared the European ATM fragmentation the nine FABs are bringing to the situation we had back in the early 70s. Like all comparisons, this one is not perfect by far, but there are enough similarities to make one worry. Are they going to address those issues?

Because let’s not forget that the idea of FABs came as a result of Europe’s dismal failure to agree on a region-wide improvement to the way air traffic management was being done. If there is no regional solution, let’s try to get things sorted out on the level of blocks of airspace that can be seen as functionally interrelated. Going for an airspace based concept when the modern approach was trajectory based was the first fatal flow… But much worse was the political interference which resulted in nine FABs instead of the 2 or 3 that would have been warranted on a purely air traffic management basis. Anyway, the FABs took a long time to get things going, sorting out organizational and political issue first and it is only now that they are slowly turning to getting the ATM aspects addressed. Based on the noises coming from every direction, coordinating things between 4 or 5 ANSPs is not that much easier than it was between 27 or so. Because the FABs are working on their own, applying their own understanding to the ATM concepts at hand, with solutions defined that are optimized for the given FAB environment, they are fast becoming castles unto themselves. However, even the largest FAB is pretty small from an aircraft’s point of view and a lot of the traffic a FAB will encounter does not stay exclusively in that FAB. An average European flight will encounter several FABs as it negotiates the suddenly not-so-single European sky. So, we know that ANSPs in a given FAB have some trouble agreeing things (nothing new there…). Who will get the FABs themselves to agree to things that affect a bunch of them? That is what used to be the European level… and the circle is round. I can already see the European FAB coordination meeting where reps of the various FABs will discover that a lot of their hard won agreements that appeared to be perfect inside their FAB do not really line up with the thinking of the FABs downstream. Then what?

The knee-jerk reaction to this is that EUROCONTROL, as the network manager will take care of this. Really? Was it not EUROCONTROL that was trying to get things agreed on the European level and the ANSPs did their best to keep things from happening if their parochial interest dictated that they oppose a European solution? Both EATCHIP and ATM2000+ died because of this attitude… When EUROCONTROL was given the title network manager, they did not get any new powers with it. So, who will be managing the FAB’s themselves?

Very well, now you see to-day’s picture and the significance of the FABs. Let’s jump back to the early seventies and look at things as they were then.

When traffic from mainly Scandinavia started flowing in earnest to Spain and Greece, the air traffic control world was totally unprepared. In order to protect themselves from overload, both Spain and Greece started to issue flow control measures, effectively throttling back traffic to a trickle. This resulted in additional flow measures being implemented in upstream centers which too tried to protect themselves from overload. In the end, holidaymakers up north tended to spend the first few hours and on occasion, a whole day, of their holidays sitting in aircraft or waiting to board. You will note that in those days each of the countries concerned acted like they were alone on the continent, they had only one thing before their eyes, avoid overload. Of course this was a safety issue but not coordinating with anyone resulted in totally ridiculous situations. Some aircraft were required to meet 4-5 restrictions and more often than not, there was no way of meeting them all.

Delays went through the roof, the airlines were crying foul but precious little happened until ICAO stepped in and called an international conference to address the issue. Finally doing the obvious, States agreed to co-ordinate their flow measures and also to set up sub-regional flow management positions that would handle traffic on the main axes that had capacity problems (like Scandinavia-Greece). Such flow management positions were subsequently established in Copenhagen, Vienna, Paris, Madrid, Athens, Belgrade and Moscow, among others. Why Moscow? Politics of course. The Russians wanted to have all Soviet-block countries to belong to the Moscow flow management unit, an idea totally silly by ATM standers but making eminent sense from a political perspective. In the end, the Moscow unit did not have many clients (and even less traffic) with central Europe being assigned to Vienna and Belgrade.

For a few summers things went rather smoothly. Delays were still there but they stayed on an acceptable level and most importantly, most flights had to contend with a single restriction as the flow positions consolidated the various measures into a single one that satisfied all the ATC units concerned.

As traffic grew further, a fatal flaw emerged. The flow positions were not able to coordinate with each other really effectively. There were many reasons for this, political as well as technological but at the end of the day it was clear that the system would soon collapse under the demand being put on it by traffic levels never before seen in Europe.

There was only one solution that could address the problem: a central facility that would handle the whole of Europe. By some oversight or lucky omission, states agreed to set up the Central Flow Management Unit or CFMU. The rest of course is history… The sub-regional FMPs were subsumed into the CFMU and local flow management positions were set up in each of the ACCs to work closely with the central unit.

You can say what you will about the CFMU and the quality of the service it has provided over the years, but the fact remains, without the CFMU, air traffic management in Europe would have failed to perform years ago.

Here we are then, back in the present. Under the FAB concept, flow management inside the FAB is a local activity (remember the sub-regional flow management positions???) and coordination between them is done by… hmm, the toothless tiger network manager? Hardly. But then who?

I think this is the kind of situation to which the English expression “been there, done that” applies perfectly.

But compared to the 70s, in to-days reality, there is another important difference. While back then we were struggling with fragmented flow management only, the FAB concept fragments also the technology and procedural aspects of ATM, with FABs being king in what they agree for use inside the FAB. On the European level? Who knows. Because the Single Sky mandates are far from enough to have a consistent, overall development scene enforced on the continent…

I am not saying that the designers of the FABs have not thought of these issues. But for sure they are keeping their thoughts a secret because no matter whom one asks, they all claim to not know how this is supposed to work. It is not easy to find someone who has actually been part of the scenery in the 70s and who, consequently, would be as concerned as I am about these haunting similarities.

Have we come full circle? If yes, we should walk just a little longer and re-discover the advantages of a centralized European ATM facility…

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