The long-haul European flight through its Single Sky: accomplishments and turbulences

Twenty years after the effective liberalization of air transport in the European Union through the introduction of cabotage rights in 1997, Airlines have fully experienced the disrupting power of competition in the single market and passengers have benefitted from a choice of routes, operators and fares never seen before. Despite the wriggle of air travelling demand in these 20 years, the underlying Air Traffic Management (ATM) system has remained prevalently based on its historical structure, assets and operating principles. The path to achieve a truly integrated, fully interoperable, technologically advanced and market-oriented ATM in Europe is much longer and steeper than initially expected in 2004, the time when the first Single European Sky (SES) package was launched. In 2017 it is time for its ATM system to fully face the challenges of the epochal change ongoing in every other sector of our contemporary economy, trying to adapt to a global market in the digital era, while still looking proudly to its recent history of safety and security.

Main achievements so far

The current SES strategy encompasses a legislative framework, structured around the main pillars of performance, safety, technology and airport integration into the system, all based on the transversal human factors foundation. Its technological pillar, SESAR, has allowed the defragmentation of research thanks to an unprecedented effort to bring together all the actors under a single programme, which is now being deployed via local implementation projects under the Pilot Common Project. Some of the SESAR Solutions have been implemented and are delivering benefits. Flying in Free Route Airspaces is already allowing airlines to save up to 150 Tonnes of fuel per day (i.e. 450 Tonnes of Co2); Time-Based Separation and Extended Arrival Management at Heathrow are saving almost 25 Tonnes of fuel x day (i.e. 75 tonnes of Co2). Could have this been possible without SESAR? Difficult to say, but certainly it has created the perfect playground and conditions for innovation to become reality.

The effort for Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) and National Supervisory Authorities (NSAs) to fulfill the obligations introduced by the Performance and Charging schemes Regulations since 2012 have been tremendous, both from the operational and administrative perspectives. Still over the 3 years of the First Reference Period (RP1: 2012-2014), a moderate 7.5% of cost reduction has been achieved (En-route Determined Unit Rate), while en-route ATFM delays and the horizontal flight inefficiency reduced by almost 5%. These results were obtained in a general context of traffic reduction, when the quality of ANS services usually tends to improve.

Year to year variation of main Key Performance Indicators. Source: EUROCONTROL PRU data portalYear to year variation of main Key Performance Indicators. Source: EUROCONTROL PRU data portal

Single sky_
Year to year variation of main Key Performance Indicators. Source: EUROCONTROL PRU data portal

One-size does not fit all

The consolidated picture does not allow however to grasp the local differences among the ANSPs involved. Let’s try to give an idea of the different orders of magnitude of the forces involved: the global effort of the 13 ANSPs who managed to reduce their service provision costs over RP1 (i.e. 240€M leaving UkSATSE out of the equation), was vanished by 26 days of French Air Traffic Controllers (ATCOs) strike. This generated in 2015 an equivalent impact in delay and cancellation costs to airlines, meaning that all the virtuous behaviors of EU ANSPs in the cost efficiency KPA over three years were canceled by a limited group of people in a couple of weeks of strike.

Social and labour issues certainly appear to be a major hurdle to implement the change, due to complex nation-specific negotiations in some Member States constraining the transition. The pro-active involvement of ATCOs along the definition and design activities conducted under the SES umbrella is fundamental to ensure their buy-in. This is possibly one of the factors that has been overlooked so far, limiting mostly their presence to the different trade-unions representatives and during validation and consultation activities.

Another non-negligible area for further improvement is the communication to and awareness of the general public. An EU citizen picked randomly on the street will hardly know what the SES is and how it can improve his life. But he will most probably have taken a flight at peak hour and experienced an ATFM delay. The creation of this public awareness could in turn exert a pressure on the political commitment of Member States to SES and increase their willingness to implement the change.

Looking ahead

Anyway the process of reforming monopolistic industries has been long and difficult elsewhere. If we look at the experience gained in the liberalization of electricity, 20 years after the first directive liberalizing the European energy markets, we see that its main objective of achieving a cheaper electricity has not been fulfilled yet. Instead, between 1994 and 2016 the electricity prices for household consumers have doubled on average from €0,10 to €0,20 per kWh. Even if today a working common market for electricity in Europe has been formally achieved, the process of liberalization is not yet complete. The legacy from incumbent, vertically integrated, national monopolies is still providing difficult to overcome, resulting in a market that is still highly concentrated, with generators and retailers possibly leveraging their market power to maintain prices high.

In summary the current SES strategy has allowed so far scratching the surface of the innate conservatism of the ATM world, creating the boundary conditions to initiate the transition and bring every actor to the same page, but the effort to keep the momentum could be even higher in the next years.

The European Commission is certainly aware of the importance of keeping this momentum and year 2017 is being a key step in the transition: The appointment of a new Performance Review Body will facilitate the discussions over the reform in view of RP3, which have started already. The mandate to the SESAR JU to propose content for inclusion in a second Common Project (CP2) is fostering the analysis, discussion and prioritization of different deployment options among stakeholders. In parallel EUROCONTROL has appointed its new Director General while the Agency is seeking support for its re-designation as Network Manager after 2019. All the pieces seem to fit together but how long will it take to reach the destination?

About ALG

ALG has unparalleled experience in supporting different European agencies in the assessment of impacts derived from operational and technical modernization initiatives; in supporting ANSPs and NSAs in the strategic analysis of opportunities, risks and investments to ensure the elaboration of sustainable Performance Plans, Business Cases and transitional plans.

About the authors
Rubén Martínez is MSc in Aeronautical Engineering and Director at ALG
Andrea Ranieri is PhD in Operations Research and Senior manager at ALG
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