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European skies – a juggling act with too many balls?

Airlines sell tickets to fly, it’s their raison d’être, and in general they sell as many as they profitably can. IATA’s recent analysis demonstrates that while business models may come and go, the biggest predictor of long-term profitable survival is scale: the more tickets a company sells, the safer from bankruptcy it usually is.

Unfortunately, when it comes to making good on the promise of those tickets, physical reality steps in. We see it as pilots when there simply aren’t enough of us in place to fly the schedule. We suffer the consequences in fatigue, sickness and burnout as the last drops of productivity are wrung from us. But we are also now seeing it in the air: on many days the capacity of our existing European air traffic network is reached, with ever more desperate efforts to stretch it just that little bit further.

Europe’s professional pilots have just held their General Assembly, generously hosted by EUROCONTROL at its headquarters (and where I had the privilege of being elected ECA’s new President, following in Dirk Polloczek’s literally and figuratively GIANT footsteps). 

We suffer the consequences in fatigue, sickness and burnout as the last drops of productivity are wrung from us.

Whilst there, we heard first hand from Eamonn Brennan, EUROCONTROL Director-General, about the trials and troubles of the European sky that can no longer contain the number of passenger jets being catapulted into it.

You can see it in the flight arrival and delay boards at most airports during busy days – the numbers of flights posted as ‘delayed’, and just how late they are, gets larger with every holiday period. Some ideological airline chiefs have tried to blame this on striking or unproductive air traffic controllers. But the reality is more straightforward and less comfortable for airline executives. On behalf of all of us, airlines are trying to throw more flights up in the air than can be juggled at the same time in the available space.

Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) and EUROCONTROL as the Network Manager do their best to cope with this despite years of industry pressure to cut staff and costs. They pass balls (flights!) off to the side with wide re-routes, throw some higher or lower than they’d want to try and claw back some more air. One of the tools used is to tell airlines and pilots to just do as they’re told – no changes to convoluted flight plans please, as this will supposedly help to squeeze the last drops of airspace from the sky. Whilst great in theory, the reality of being a safety professional in a hazardous and commercial world is that the need to avoid weather, turbulence, and to manage our fuel state at the point of arrival is an overriding responsibility. Simple adherence to a theoretical, predictable plan is neither possible, nor a solution to an over-crowded sky.

The Single European Sky has made staggeringly little progress

For years, European institutions have poured money and effort into the Single European Sky (SES) and related Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) projects, with the aim of providing a single, high capacity, free flow airspace across the continent. It has made staggeringly little progress.

Such a concept should provide huge benefits in reduced flight times, cost and fuel reductions, environmental damage limitation, and capacity increases. 

However, tied to the mentioned benefits are other measures: the redistribution of revenue from overflight fees, with winners and losers; the privatisation and sell off of air traffic services and infrastructure; the ability for one part of the network to take over another part, in practice possibly damaging the right of staff to strike; the possibility to merge and close control centres, making staff cuts more likely.  

Depending on where you stand you may regard these measures as more or less desirable. But three things about them are certain – they are not required to deliver the concept and benefits of a Single European Sky; they vastly expand the scope and scale of the project making it much more work to deliver; and they trigger widespread resistance to the project from staff and political blockages in the Member States (hence those ‘pesky’ strikes). 

Is it time for a rethink of the Single European Sky? Might ‘less’ in this circumstance actually mean ‘more’?

Delivering a positive user experience and ‘front end’ seamless European sky do not need such measures. It should be possible to provide with existing technology and software, overlaying and integrating the existing air traffic control systems. Such an approach would provide the vast majority of benefits sought by the full SES, but at a fraction of the cost and effort, and without aggravating staff and national politicians. It might also allow the positions of service providers to be maintained and enhanced – with the incentive of reward for performance and efficiency – rather than picking winners and losers by competitive gaming of the system at each other’s expense. 

Is it time for a rethink? Might ‘less’ in this circumstance actually mean ‘more’? 

If a less expansive and politically controversial SES concept could find broader support among stakeholders – focussed on technicalities, outcome for the user, and incentives for the providers  – perhaps it would enable a smoother and more impressive juggling act in the European sky.  

Dropping the odd ball with a resulting “Delayed” or “Cancelled” arrivals board message is costly and annoying. But we cannot continue just piling more balls and pressure on our juggling act whilst asking the balls to just fly as they are told. Eventually we won’t just be dropping the odd one, but we’ll end up with them all chaotically dropping to the floor as the system is overloaded.

We need a fundamental step change that works in practice and works quickly in the European sky before then. 

by Capt. Jon Horne, ECA President