Functional Airspace Blocks (FAB) – the EC’s biggest blunder?

On 30-04-2011, in FAB News, by pbn

That the EC meant well when they originally came up with the idea of Functional Airspace Blocks (FAB) is not in question. That they did not anticipate the monster they were creating can be put down to the engaging naivety of someone venturing into the jungle of European air traffic management for the first time. That IATA was blind enough to support the FAB concept shows how desperate they were for a solution, any solution, to the continued ills of ATM.

As we head towards a summer promising to be vary bad in terms of delays and in the midst of the general euphoria about FABs and ANSP alliances, it should be interesting to look into the history of the FAB idea and its present reality. If for no other reason then to learn why it will not bring the improvements the industry craves.

Those amongst you with the longest memory will recall EATCHIP and ATM2000+ the two European flagship air traffic management projects which dragged on for years and in spite of Ministers of Transport signatures on the ATM2000+ documents, they delivered very little. We suffered through meeting after meeting, all kinds of new groups were created but in the end, when it came to implementation the deadlines always seemed to slip to a date comfortably in the future. Comfortably for the service providers and frustratingly for the airspace users. Europe was treading water and the industry did not drawn but this was in spite of ATM2000+ rather than because of it.

The European Commission was taking an increasing interest in the problems of air traffic management and seeing that it was not possible to create a truly European project, they decided to take a pragmatic approach when they finally intervened. Enter the Functional Airspace Block or FAB. If you cannot get the whole of Europe to work on a harmonized system, have at least a few groups of ANSPs work together… A nice idea which unfortunately ignored the fundamental problems and realities of European ATM.

The FAB concept was met with a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm. Working together, giving up even a small bit of their independence was anathema to the ANSPs and any idea coming from the EC was suspect to begin with. The first round of the Single European Sky regulations was struggling to take off at about the same time and was kept firmly on the ground for the very same reason…

Then SESAR came along. This was a truly European undertaking working to define a truly European air traffic management system. SESAR’s definition phase was hard going but on that particular battle field it was no longer possible to go against the pan-European solution, so instead the proposed new paradigms and solutions were attacked with the usual gusto.

But SESAR, even before it was officially launched, had an unexpected side effect. The ANSPs suddenly realized that once SESAR materializes, they will have no choice but to play their part in a truly European undertaking, making an end to the parochial arrangements and local monopolies.

Suddenly the idea of the FABs looked very attractive. At least like-minded ANSPs could band together and create a new kind of castle from which to fight really European solutions to the ATM problems.

Organizations not so long before up in arms and fighting to delay FAB implementation were suddenly its biggest supporters. Just like in the middle ages when castles were built in the path of an advancing enemy, FABs sprung up all over Europe to work furiously on getting things right… inside the castle to be sure.

Of course there was still an outstanding European problem, good old EUROCONTROL. It has been an open secret for more than a decade now that the premier ANSPs in Europe were convinced they could do what EUROCONTROL was doing much better and they started to dismantle this unique organization whose lack of success in the past was due to one thing only: the recalcitrant attitude of some of its member States.

Of course it was not possible to kill EUROCONTROL outright. After all, there are still States around which believe that such a European organization could in fact be the answer to ATM problems if it were left to work properly. So to poison was administered in a clever way, cloaked in one of the new and very fashionable buzzwords: network.

EUROCONTROL will become the network manager in Europe. In a speech in Amsterdam recently, EUROCONTROL’s DG hastened to highlight that this does not mean that EUROCONTROL will have powers to tell ANSPs what to do. At best, EUROCONTROL will be able to advocate a network centric approach but otherwise will assess what improvements can be done and advise ANSPs and States about what to do. Clever is it not? The old lion had its teeth pulled out and now even its tail cut off…

How will the poison work? Well, mark my words, in a few years’ time, Europe will discover that their network manager (EUROCONTROL) is not doing such a great job after all. In fact they will discover that it is not needed at all… That will be the day when the “For SALE” sign will be posted on the gates of EUROCONTROL HQ in Haren. Not because they were so bad but because they were given a mission impossible.

By then, the FABs will have grown very strong and the extra ANSP alliances currently being set up will create an additional layer of fragmentation in European ATM.

What will the European Commission say and do? After all, they have proclaimed many times that their highest political priority is having the FABs set up. In a way, the success of SES Package 2 is predicated on the FABs… Will they have the good sense and stop the monster in time?

They say a dog does not bite the hand that feeds it… So the FABs should be ok, right?

Well, no, it is not. The FABs are already biting that hand.

Not only are ANSP CEOs rumbling that the performance targets of the EC’s Single Sky Package were unrealistic, at the ATC Global conference in Amsterdam recently, the boss of DSNA, the French ANSP and one of the prominent FAB figures, said two things that should be noted by the EC and which should start the alarm bells ringing.

According to the DSNA DG (whose view is no doubt shared by other ANSPs also), SESAR was built on the FAB concept right from the start. This is patently untrue! SESAR is (was?) a truly European concept that does not need the FABs or any other fragmentation. Of course in order to neutralize the “SESAR effect” ANSPs will have to prove that SESAR and the FABs are the very same thing. One can only hope that the SESAR JU will resist this nonsense that is contrary to everything SESAR is (was?) about.

The other interesting message from DSNA was the happiness they expressed over FABs bringing European diversity to SESAR… European diversity is a term we do not normally associate with successful European projects. What SESAR needs is something very different…

The questions one should ask are these: why could the ANSPs not work together in the framework of projects like ATM2000+ and why are they suddenly so keep on cooperation in the FABs? Why were they originally opposed to the FAB concept and then suddenly so keen on it? What has changed?

There is only one reasonable conclusion: ATM2000+ was on a truly European level and would have solved the European ATM problems. SESAR is a truly European undertaking that, like ATM2000+, would solve problems on the European level. See the point? Both are threats to the European ANSP kingdoms and both need effective countermeasures to protect the kingdoms.

ATM2000+ was killed by obfuscation and SESAR is being countered by the rising force of the FABs. With EUROCONTROL relegated to irrelevance (the network manager role is a farce), Europe is heading towards an ATM scene fragmented to a degree never seen before and totally lacking effective central management. This is how we started in the 70s except that back then we did have a EUROCONTROL we could count on.

What a quirk of fate that this bleak ATM future is being crafted by tools that were provided by none other than the European Commission…

High time for a wake up call!

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  1. Alexf says:

    Spot on, my only quibble is the implication that without FABs, SESAR would actually provide a successful pan European solution. The legacy of ATM 2000+ and EATCHIP is hardly encouraging; SESAR, just as those earlier projects, largely eschews the evolutionary approach. The question, just as with NextGen, is who on earth can pay for the blank sheet of paper solution, given the extraordinary longevity of modern aircraft?

  2. pbn says:

    Akexf you are absolutely right of course about the financing issue. In that respect doubts abound around both SESAR and NextGen.
    The intention here was to say that SESAR is (was?) at least pan-European as opposed to the FABs which only bring fragmentation, what is more, they cast it in iron that will be very difficult to throw out into the scrapyard.

  3. max payload says:

    Hmm, one could argue that FABs may actually mean LESS fragmentation, and may even be seen as a step towards a single super FAB.
    However, at this time it seems to me that more of a feudal landscape may arise, fiefdoms if you will.

    Sprucing up the CFMU to NM level may not be such a bad idea since the institution is accepted in that role already.
    Eurocontrol has never been its own boss, it’s always been in the hands of the States, so nothing new there and it will take severe EC legislation to change that situation.

    The real danger lies in NM-FAB coordination; the additional layer is indeed untried territory and no doubt EU skies will suffer.

    Ah, Europe…

  4. steve says:

    In respect of EUROCONTROL as the NM, the words of their DG are very telling: it is not so that EUROCONTROL will get more authority to tell ANSPs and States what to do. They will be assessing the best solutions and advise States and ANSPs… We all know what that means.

    The day the CFMU is renamed EACC (European ATM Command Centre) and gets the authority required is when we will be able to say we are on the right track.

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