When is a FAB not a FAB?

On 09-08-2011, in FAB News, by cleo

We have written quite a lot about the Functional Airspace Blocks (FAB), their dangers and their impact on SESAR.

Although these days most everything is claimed to be happening in the context of the various FABs, the picture is far from ideal. It is not unusual to hear in meetings or in discussions with various ANSP reps that this or that subject is very “sensitive” in their FAB and one should be careful mentioning it. Of course it would have been naïve to think that States who were less than exemplary in working together under the EUROCONTROL umbrella would suddenly turn into sheep and cooperate smoothly within the FAB concept. Parochial thinking and the protection of their own turf remain in place and it will take long and hard work to overcome the old reflexes.

But the FAB concept seems to be evolving in a way its inventors probably never intended. You will have noticed in the news the announcement of various co-operation agreements between Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) being created apparently in parallel with the FABs they are participating in. In spite of the nice words of these new alliances, they begged the question right from the start: why? If the FAB is such a great thing and they are already in it, why form an alliance on top of it.

Now we may have the answer…

NEFAB is (or was…) the FAB implementation for Northern Europe. It has not come into being but ANSPs in the area have entered into an alliance in the form of a consortium to exploit the airspace together. And the FAB? Well, it seems that they may have come to the same conclusion as we did. With such an alliance, you do not really need the FAB as it was originally envisaged. The end of NEFAB as it were… Is this significant? Well, while the Single Sky Regulations remain mandatory for the EU member states also in the North, such a “consortium” FAB will have created themselves quite some freedom to maneuver free of the constraints inherent in the “traditional” FAB idea. Cute…

But there are other similar initiatives and some of those cut right across FAB boundaries. Read the following announcement, published recently in ATC Global:

“Six European ANSPs have signed a Memorandum of Cooperation to deliver the next generation ATM system. The six service providers: AENA of Spain, DFS of Germany, DSNA of France, ENAV of Italy, NATS of UK and Noracon group of Northern European ANSPs have formed the A6 alliance to optimize resources, share best practice, enhance common methods of operation and improve efficiencies.

The memorandum creates a formal structure for the informal arrangement started in 2007 to present a consolidated view in negotiations within SESAR. The A6 ANSPs are all full members of SESAR JU. The role of A6 is to create synergies between the ANSP members of the SESAR JU to maximize customer and network benefits and to provide leadership at European level to critical technical and strategic areas. The A6 alliance represents 71 per cent of ECAC airspace and controls 72 per cent of European air traffic.”

There used to be a time when European ATM leadership was supposed to be enshrined in EUROCONTROL and spread collectively to all its members. In that scenario, the airspace users were also intimately involved and were influencing things. Now the airspace users are conspicuous by their absence from these new ANSP alliances. Incidentally, some of the very same ANSPs now in the so called leadership role were blocking progress at every opportunity back then. Wolfs turning to sheep?

Of course one should be pleased at any step that highlights the shortcomings of the FAB concept and its fundamental incompatibility with the SESAR concept of operations. BUT a future organized around ANSP consortia mixed in with FABs creates even more fragmentation and complications on the European level, complications this industry does not need.

The question is: with the EU stuck on FABs, the ANSPs creating alliances that are free of the FAB shackles, SESAR trying to be truly pan-European in its concept and EUROCONTROL all but irrelevant, who is in the driver’s seat in European ATM? Or are we admitting that there is a two-speed Europe when it comes to air traffic management and representing 70 % is good enough to be the self-proclaimed leaders?

It took a volcano to show up how poor Europe is in coordinating its ATM activities in a crisis and another volcano to remind Europe that the system is still inferior after a year of “improvements”. What kind of tsunami will be needed to show up the inconsistencies (to put it mildly) inherent in the FAB/ANSP alliance/SESAR landscape?

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  1. alexf says:

    ‘What kind of tsunami will be needed to show up the inconsistencies (to put it mildly) inherent in the FAB/ANSP alliance/SESAR landscape?’

    Traditionally it has been a hot summer with booming traffic that shows up the systems deficiencies so publicly that even Europe’s densest politicians sit up and take notice. With the pressure off for the moment due to other economic unpleasantness, the system may not reach breaking point for some time, but my prediction is that the crunch will still occur and then the total inadequacy, not only of the planning, but also the planners, will be shown up. No system can succeed if it ignores its users, but the users also need to wake up to their responsibilities, nothing much will happen until they do and actually take charge.

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