A panel of experts has proposed a set of measures it believes would help improve the efficiency of Europe’s air traffic control (ATC) system.

Europe has been trying to move away from ATC boundaries based on those of individual states and towards a smaller number of larger functional airspace blocks as part of the Single European Sky project. But progress has been slow.

The panel of experts, formally known as the European Commission Wise Persons Group on European Air Traffic Control reform, published a series of recommendations April15, split into short- and long-term measures.

The short-term measures, which would be implemented over the next two years, include:

  • Continuing with airspace restructuring measures examined in a study carried out by the Network Manager and the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) program;
  • Progressing the SESAR Joint Undertaking (Airspace Architecture Study) to increase collaboration across national borders and making better use of modern digital data, automation and communications technologies.
  • Accelerating the deployment of state-of-the-art technologies.

Longer-term solutions would include:

  • Improving the link between the quality of air traffic service and the price paid by those who fly. For example, organizations that are first to put in place innovative solutions would be rewarded.
  • Upgrading the role of air traffic controllers with better support by technology and improving synergies with military air traffic managers.
  • Establishing a European (Upper) Airspace System with a common route charging system to stimulate the use of the shortest routes and to avoid prolonging flights caused by congestion.

There has been increasing concern among European airlines over the growing delays incurred because of shortcomings in the continent’s ATC performance, whether caused by shortages of trained personnel, underinvestment in facilities or industrial action.

In 2018, airlines endured a record 19 million minutes of delays, 105% higher than in 2017. In April, Germany’s air navigation service provider, DFS, warned that greater delays were likely this summer because of a combination of fewer controllers and more flights. DFS’ managing director, Klaus-Dieter Scheurle warned that it could be 2025 before his organization has sufficient controllers to handle the growing volumes of traffic.

"Due to the growth of air traffic forecasts, we can expect further delays for air passengers too. That is unacceptable,” European commissioner for transport Violeta Bulc said on receiving the experts’ report.

“We urgently need to deploy environmentally-friendly solutions that allow for more flexibility, scalability and resilience. I am inviting member states, the European Parliament and the aviation community to consider the recommendations released today. We know what to do, now we need common and coordinated efforts to help make the European air traffic management system more efficient, flexible and sustainable in the future."

One of the first airlines to respond to the panel’s report was ultra-LCC Ryanair, which has been a long-time critic of Europe’s ATC performance. The Ireland-based carrier called on European governments and the European Commission to implement the panel’s recommendations swiftly.

“We look forward to the European Commission immediately implementing these practical recommendations. European ATC staffing is in crisis. The current ATC system in Europe is broken,” Ryanair COO Peter Bellew said.

The airline noted that Eurocontrol estimated that delays to flights would double again this year, to 38 million minutes, if no action is taken.

Alan Dron alandron@adepteditorial.com