It is not easy to work with the airlines – Why the SJU should be careful

On 07-09-2011, in SESAR's Palace, by steve

Having airspace users on board in SESAR is an important development by anyone’s measure. Thinking that having individual airlines involved is the same as having the industry involved is a grave mistake that can cost dearly to all concerned.

The signs of trouble are already there. What do you think about there being a hard-won agreement from the airspace users at one or two pretty high level meetings and then the same users withdrawing their agreement just a few weeks later? The result is frustration on the part of the other partners (ANSPs in this case), confusion about where things were going and, worst of all, loss of credibility of the airlines.

It would be easy to wave this away by just saying that the airline people in the meeting were not up to speed with the subjects being discussed and so they agreed to something they did not fully understand. This would be a rather unfortunate situation and no excuse at all but the actual reality is even worse.

The problem is not new and it is called the industry voice, or rather, the lack of it.

Until about a decade ago, IATA had been recognized by its members as the industry voice on all technical aspects of air traffic management. One of the most important, and difficult, tasks of IATA’s experts had been to forge this common voice, bringing together the widely differing interests and business models of the member airlines so that to the outside world only consolidated, well defined requirements were communicated. This was vital because otherwise the ATM and avionics industries would have been totally confused and at a loss as to what they should develop to meet the airlines’ diverse requirements.

Getting airlines to agree the main directions and the enabling technologies was a difficult task and in some cases agreement did prove beyond the abilities of the industry and so decisions were postponed (usually resulting in additional, otherwise avoidable, costs but that is another subject). In cases where there was agreement, the proof of the pudding came when it was time to actually equip… to spend money. The range of excuses offered for not doing things was actually quite amazing. But in all cases, at least the common voice and its “power” to steer everyone in the same direction usually saved the day, albeit only in the 24th hour.

As part of its cost-cutting drive and under the pressure of its members, IATA has almost completely dropped out of the detail work on ATM. Their idea of being able to influence things via policies is all but ineffective as evidenced by the many decisions being made in total disregard of those policies. While IATA did book important gains in areas like the environment or paperless tickets, their influence in European ATM is at an all time low.

Things are only made more complex by the fact that after the consolidation that has gone on in the European airline world only three blocks of players remained (Air France-KLM, Lufthansa and International Airline Group). Their most influential elements have long sought to be their own masters in matters ATM with IATA being pushed increasingly to the sidelines. This game is very similar in fact to what the big ANSPs have been/are doing to sideline EUROCONTROL.

The result? A fragmented scene with a lot of shouting and very little actually being said. Where an agreement holds only as long as it is not discussed in the back-office or presented to other airlines… The potential for a first class mess when the time comes for action.

So what is the solution? Attractive as it may appear to have a number of users talk and to pretend that you have heard the whole industry, only a true industry voice can ensure that things happen in an orderly manner when real implementation begins. Even then there will always be stragglers and those who try to wiggle out from under the requirements but at least the majority of the orchestra will follow the conductor.

So, who should be this conductor? Neither AEA nor IATA is currently up to this task and it is not likely the airline community would accept the SJU being both composer and conductor. At the end of the day, IATA would still appear to be the best candidate… if only the airlines would support them and IATA management took the hint about the need to dwell once again into the details of European ATM.

There is no way for the SJU to avoid accepting that a true airline industry voice is essential for the success of SESAR while a fragmented airline scene spells trouble down the road. Getting that industry voice should be a high priority!

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  1. Andy B says:

    This is a really important issue as SESAR projects are now embarking on the specifications of how the collaborative ATM system of the future will actually be realised in the all important Step 2 of the program. One of the most important aspects of the SESAR Concept is the Network Operations Plan which is collaboratively built by all stakeholders: ANSPs, airports and airspace users, under the overall guidance of the Network Manager resulting in a balance between demand and capacity. ANSP are asked to provide flexible capacity adapted to user demand but where demand unavoidably exceeds capacity users will be provided with the means to plan their operations within the limits of cost effective capacity. These “means” are a cornerstone of the concept. All stakeholders need to share the most up to date and accurate data, and airspace users are expected to share precise trajectory data from their operations centres and aircraft in flight (subject to necessary safeguards to protect commercially sensitive information) which will enable an very accurate prediction of demand across the Network. The collaborative processes that will result in the achievement of the demand and capacity balance across the Network cannot be designed and realised without the full commitment and involvement of all airspace users. In practical terms, spokespersons will have to be given the authority to represent the various airspace user stakeholder groups. However, if the SESAR vision can be achieved the rewards are significant. A collaboratively achieved balance between demand and capacity means the end of flow control, no more CTOTs, and the full exploitation of all the flexible capacity that can be provided by ANSP within the constraints imposed by their cost-effectiveness targets. Despite the lack “flow control” and “slots” air traffic controllers and airport runways would still be protected from overloads by the transparent results of the collaborative processes. With everyone’s cooperation it will be possible to balance demand and capacity with the minimum of constraints on the users. In this information sharing age this cannot be beyond our grasp but we will all have to work together to achieve it.

  2. Raimund Z says:

    While airspace users are very fragmented in opinion and in their requirements, there a group of players in the game now that is very focused and has finally been involved in SESAR – namely the FLIGHT PLANNING SYSTEM providers. In WP 11 we are now starting to develop a common picture of the benefits and risks that SESAR could bring to the airspace user industry. It is even possible to achieve this work by bringing together companies that are competitors on the flight planning system market. We have probably the best overview of cost and complexity impacts for our customers and some really new ideas. Our goal is to act as mediators between the ATM and AU group, finally developing systems that will allow to plan and fly more efficient trajectories in a denser populated airspace.

    After all it’s a shame how under-utilized the upper airspace is currently. One has just to look up and watch contrails to realize that.

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