The European Commission says its Single European Sky (SES) plan for a joint European airspace will allow commercial airlines to fly more direct routes in a safer environment. Switzerland, a partner in the project, will control the zone with the heaviest traffic on the continent.
Every day 26,000 aircraft pass each other in the skies over Europe, with most of them taking off or landing at one of the continent’s 440 airports.
This has led to the commission warning in June this year that travel routes and airports «risk saturation».
Air traffic will increase by 50 per cent over the next ten to twenty years and if nothing is done, chaos will reign, says Brussels, which has come forward with a new package of proposals to speed up the implementation of SES.
Heavy traffic overhead
Pascal Hochstrasser, the control tower manager at Geneva airport, says talking about chaos goes a bit too far, because in recent years the trend has been towards air traffic decreasing. «But it is true that the skies are getting quite congested, partly because every country maintains a space for its air force.»
For Hochstrasser and the staff of Skyguide, the Swiss air traffic control company, managing a sky full of planes is all in a day’s work. Swiss airspace is among the most densely used in the continent.
It is also one of the most complex, says Francis Schubert, deputy CEO of Skyguide. «Most of the traffic we control is not just moving horizontally, but also vertically. We are at the crossroads between the main airports like Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Munich and Rome.»
Unlike the United States, where the skies are controlled by a single operator, European airspace is highly fragmented. The European Union is subdivided into hundreds of sectors and includes about sixty national control centres. As a result, every country defines air travel routes based on its national borders and the needs of its airports.
A pilot flying over Europe must often follow a zigzag trajectory. «When I fly from Zurich to Brussels I have to take a pretty long route. In the US, on the other hand, it is easier to get more direct routes. It saves time and kerosene,» said Thomas Steffen, a pilot who flies A330 and A340 aircraft and is spokesman for the pilots’ union Aeropers.
Every sector in the European airspace has its own radio frequency, adds Steffen. «So we continually have to change frequency to communicate with air traffic controllers in the different navigation systems. In the US, we are less distracted. I would not go so far as to say that flying in Europe is more dangerous, but it certainly is more complicated.»
Simpler and safer
The commission says SES will bring many benefits. Planes will travel 42 kilometres less on average and fuel consumption will be reduced by ten per cent. The airlines – and therefore also the passengers – could save €5 billion (CHF 6.2 billion) a year.
The SES’s main innovation is to divide European air space up into nine functional blocks. These are no longer defined by national frontiers, but by operating requirements. Switzerland – along with France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg – is to be included in FABEC (Functional Airspace Block Europe Central), the largest block through which flies 55 per cent of continental traffic (5.5 million flights a year).
«The basic idea of SES is quite right: in Europe there are too many control centres,» said Hochstrasser. Giving up national frontiers, he believes, will improve air safety. «The flow transiting above Geneva intersects twice. With FABEC we will be able to use more direct routes, with no intersections.»
Simplifying airspace structures will help the controllers too, notes Schubert. «Up until recently, air traffic control systems were quite different from one another and had difficulty in communicating with each other. Ensuring they are compatible will reduce the risk of error during transfer of aircraft from one sector to another.»
Implications for Switzerland
SES represents a great opportunity for Skyguide, emphasises Schubert. «It gives us a framework for establishing the kind of cooperation we really need to ensure the performance of the system.»
«We will continue to manage the same space, although we will have to train our controllers for the new system,» said Hochstrasser. «We are planning for an initial implementation of the FABEC approach by the end of 2014. We will be reorganising traffic flows, which will allow the airlines to make savings.»
Patrick Csikos, a researcher at the Kurt Bösch University Institute in Sion, in canton Valais in western Switzerland, also recognises that SES is needed. But he has some doubts concerning the effects on Switzerland and Skyguide.
«For a long time the central position of Switzerland was an advantage for Skyguide, which got to manage neighbouring air spaces [over 40 per cent of the airspace controlled is in Germany, France, Italy and Austria]. Now this advantage is becoming a liability, because under FABEC, the air navigation services will be rivals rather than partners. The idea behind SES is make the different national navigation services compete against each other, so that only the most efficient survive.»
In this respect, Skyguide is not in a position of strength, Csikos said. «Compared to other European systems it has a rather high cost structure, in part because of the strong franc. It can’t be ruled out that at some point France or Germany may demand control of the zones previously assigned to Skyguide.»