Fragmented skies

28 March 2017

The article was written by DeHavilland EU and originally published in ERA’s Regional International magazine

Air Traffic Management (ATM) is at the centre of commercial flights and helps ensure the timeliness and safety of flights. However, the European ATM  system is outdated and relies essentially on 1950s technology. This makes it ill-equipped to handle the demanding air traffic of the 21st century, which continues to grow rapidly. Alongside that, there is the issue of fragmented European airspace, which was supposed to be fixed by the Single European Sky (SES) by dividing European airspace into nine airspace blocks, but this is still incomplete years later. Taken together, these problems result in substantial financial, environmental and air capacity problems. However, solutions are being introduced to finally break the deadlock and bring the ATM network up to date.


Current sub-par conditions of European air space management impact air carriers in a number of ways. First, the fragmentation of European airspace creates an environment where aircraft are unable to take the shortest route to their destination, because airspace is divided along national borders. Inefficient flightpath setting causes aircraft to travel an average of 49km more than necessary, adding to fuel costs and creating additional emissions.

Second, by some estimates, the aviation sector is predicted to grow by 3.7 per cent year on year through to 2034. This rate of growth poses a great challenge to an already stretched ATM network. It is simply not equipped to handle such a flow of air traffic. In addition, by some estimates, existing inefficiencies are already causing financial costs within a range of €4 to €5bn per year, and this will of course grow as traffic increases.

The aim of the SES and its successor SES II+ was to address these problems; however, SES is yet to be fully implemented, while SES II+ is stuck in the Council until further notice. In the meantime, the Commission has taken steps to achieve some level of progress and address the issues. In December 2014, the EC made €3bn available to modernise air traffic infrastructure through Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR). The underlying goal of SESAR is to merge and modernise the 28 national air control systems to tackle airspace fragmentation, in such a way as to solve the issues of longer flights and limited capacity to manage air traffic. However, updating the technological side of ATM will only bring partial relief.

Updated master plan

As a step forward, the Commission is working on two documents: a navigation strategy for the aviation sector and a revision of the 2015 master plan for ATM. This was confirmed by EC’s Paul Flament on 9 February during an event that ERA attended following an invitation from MEP Marian-Jean Marinescu.

The papers will amplify existing efforts to optimise air routes to cut fuel expenditure and CO2 emissions while increasing the number of flights that European ATM can handle. The master plan is expected to define the approach to managing the capacity shortage as well as setting milestones that need to be achieved along the way, including the implementation of SESAR. The navigation strategy, on the other hand, is positioned to promote the adoption of global navigation satellite systems that can increase air routes and airport capacity.

The European Commission and the European Parliament are of the opinion that both of the documents will spur the deployment of satellite-based landing systems, such as the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS), which allows precision approaches to airports both with vertical and lateral guidance. This would allow avoiding the use of expensive ground infrastructure, which is necessary otherwise. The approach offers better access and higher safety levels (including under adverse weather conditions), higher throughput in airports without additional costs and lower fuel usage levels.

The current state of European ATM is no surprise. A warning about the inevitable capacity crunch was included in the Aviation Package, predicting that European airports will be unable to accommodate around two million flights by 2035. This is why utilising existing capacity better is so crucial. The financial investment and upcoming documents from the Commission could give the necessary push for the European airspace to finally become unified and for the ATM to become more efficient.

Darius Mikulenas, Transport Policy Executive
Darius Mikulenas
Transport Policy Executive

Darius Mikulenas leads on the Transport, Security and Defence portfolio for the DeHavilland EU team. Darius has experience working with an industry association representing the Waste-to-Energy sector in Brussels.