It is certainly a big idea. By 2030, the full implementation of a Single European Sky (SES) would result in around 328,000 more jobs and about €419 billion in economic activity, according to a McKinsey Study.
With such temptingly huge rewards on offer, it seems bizarre that efforts to put SES in place are creeping along at a snail’s pace.
Pundits point to implausibly weak targets and an even weaker resolve. Only one out of the nine Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs) is ready despite a looming 2012 deadline and political will appears lacking.
So, at first glance, SES seems destined to linger a little longer in the imagination – a space it has occupied for over 20 years – before becoming reality.
However, this is not a view shared by ACI Europe’s director general, Olivier Jankovec, who believes that the reality is very different.
“SES has become a regulatory-driven process,” he says. “That gives it a life of its own. The framework obliges the actors to make progress.”
Airports are no exception to that obligation to advance. For the gateways of Europe, the crucial question is how capacity on the ground can hope to match the capacity liberated in the air?
There seems little point in increasing airspace capacity while new European runways remain a pipedream.
And with investment in airports increasingly difficult to find and the ‘not-in-my-backyard’ development mindset hampering expansion plans, it would appear, from an airport perspective, as if SES could risk simply exacerbating the long-standing congestion problems it is designed to solve.
But SES supporters argue that the whole concept needs be viewed in much broader terms. Rather than permitting ground infrastructure inadequacies to create knock-on inefficiency in the air – bringing with it financial and environmental challenges – SES will actually promote ground efficiency, especially at major hubs.
Indeed, Jankovec sees SES as an opportunity for all airports. He accepts that congested gateways are likely to be the biggest winners, giving them some all-important flexibility, but he stresses the interdependence of the modern air traffic management (ATM) system means every airport will benefit.
Crucially, it will give each and every facility the opportunity to play a part in a fundamental operational shift.
The ideal of a single sky – airspace through which aircraft move on optimal trajectories, including a ‘green’ departure and a continuous descent approach – has enormous ramifications for the entire aviation value chain.
Airlines, ground service providers and airports will have to adjust to a rationalisation of available capacity.
“Airports must become integrated into the ATM network to make the whole system more efficient,” says Jankovec.
“What happens on the ground must co-ordinate with what is happening in the sky. There must be ‘one operation’. The gate slot must be aligned with the runway slot and ATM.”
Some of Jankovec’s integration wish list is already in place. Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM) is one example of better co-ordination – driving greater efficiency on the ground through a focus on maintaining tight aircraft turnaround times and pre-departure sequences.
A-CDM is already fully operational at Munich, Brussels, Paris, Heathrow and Frankfurt, with another eight airports expected to achieve full implementation by the end of this year. Even so, much more remains to be done.
For Jankovec, the game-changer is the chance for airports to act as a ground co-ordinator for all parties. He believes this will maximise the potential efficiency, making it a win-win solution for airlines and airports.
He is, however, quick to stress that this is not about airports telling airlines what flight schedules to operate.
“We are not saying ‘dictate’ but ‘co-ordinate’,” Jankovec notes. “It will make for a more efficient system for everybody. No airport wants to run an airline or tell a third-party groundhandler what to do. But airports need to take back control over how their infrastructure is used.”
The ground co-ordinator scheme will not be mandatory and is likely of most value to the major European hubs. But from any viewpoint it marks a big step forward in reflecting the airport as a business; a business that is in control of its own destiny.
Big money for small airports
There are other changes in the offing. According to Jankovec, the European Commission proposal to change the slot allocation to 85/15 instead of 80/20 is simply aligning slot allocation with the reality of the SES project.
“It takes account of the fact that airport infrastructure is scarce,” he suggests. “It will help SES to eliminate inefficiency.”
But in a low-growth economy, keeping costs to a minimum while reducing inefficiency is paramount and the benefits of SES won’t come cheap for airports. There is a significant cost associated with SESAR, the technical arm of the SES project.
In the SESAR programme definition phase, it was estimated that European airports would need to invest a grand total of €550 million for the deployment of SESAR technology.
Since then, SESAR has enhanced the business model to include both the direct cost of the programme and the indirect spending linked to increased passenger numbers over the period 2010-2030.
“SESAR-related investment is now estimated at around 3% of all planned airport investments,” says Carlo Borghini, deputy executive director of SESAR Joint Undertaking.
“The payback period for SESAR-related investments would be approximately five years, as increased traffic will generate increased revenue and income.”
Some regional airports that already experience very little in the way of congestion disruption may not concur with that assessment.
And although SESAR will doubtless improve the wider network, it will not necessarily feed down to the local level.
Such issues will be a challenge going forward, and some industry observers are calling for governments to help by part-financing SESAR implementation, especially for smaller airports.
Meanwhile, Borghini notes the benefits are tangible for airports no matter what their size.
“All airports will benefit from new technologies such as System Wide Information Management (SWIM) and share the environmental benefits of SESAR, which include reduced CO2 and noise emissions,” he insists.
From here to eternity?
Despite all the positives, the vexed question remains – when will SES become a reality? Aside from only one out of nine FABs being in place – the Denmark-Sweden block – six of the remaining eight look certain to miss the end of year deadline.
And just five out of 27 states were on schedule to achieve delay reduction and cost-efficiency targets according to an EU progress report. By some estimates, Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) are expected to fall short of cost-efficiency targets by some €250 million.
Nevertheless, Borghini remains upbeat and insists SESAR will deliver on time and provide the appropriate tools to achieve the European Union’s high-level goals.
One aim of a Single European Sky is a 10% reduction in CO2 for every flight. Current figures already show a reduction of around 2%, which is a positive start.
SES should also improve safety performance by a factor of 10 as well as increase ATM capacity and cut ATM cost.
But progress requires partnership. The limits of what individual players can do alone are being reached.
In SESAR, some 200 companies are working together, testing and assessing new operational procedures. Eurocontrol, acting as the network manager, is playing a central role.
The collaborative approach makes it possible to rapidly pinpoint what works and what doesn’t. This ensures any issues are addressed and should deliver operational improvements within a reasonable timeframe.
Also driving progress is the philosophy of “best equipped, best served”, the idea being that those aircraft that can handle state-of-the-art navigation will get preferential treatment across the network.
Although there are issues with the concept it typifies the existing SESAR scenario – whatever might help push SES forward should be welcomed by all stakeholders.
Positively, nobody is arguing against SES. Its ability to improve the region’s social, economic and environmental fabric makes it a fundamental pillar of sustainable growth.