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EUROCONTROL: a vital forum for all stakeholders to agree recovery priorities

Stakeholder forum

"If all European aviation stakeholders can agree a common strategy, aviation recovery will be faster, stronger and more sustainable. EUROCONTROL has a key role in supporting partners work together to set the priorities."

Interview with Philip Hughes, Head of European Aviation Plans, Cooperation and Stakeholder Support at EUROCONTROL

Whatever the scale of uncertainties currently engulfing the industry one fact is generally held to be true: COVID-19 will bring fundamental, long-term changes to aviation. Optimists hope the pandemic will be a catalyst to muchneeded change, creating an air traffic management (ATM) system in Europe which is more scalable, flexible and able to react to changes in the marketplace in a more dynamic way than before, creating the framework for a recovery based on stronger environmental priorities linked to the European Green Deal. Pessimists fear the pandemic will lead to further entrenchment of silo-based mentalities, with each stakeholder group focused on protecting its own financial and business portfolio interests.

For EUROCONTROL these are critical times and its role as a strategic coordinating body for all stakeholders to develop mutually beneficial recovery plans has never been more important.

“We’ve already tried to help airlines and air navigation service providers (ANSPs) with loan arrangements and developed a clear, four-pillar strategy for supporting the industry in terms of deferring charges and other support mechanisms,” says Philip Hughes, Head of European Aviation Plans, Cooperation and Stakeholder Support at EUROCONTROL. “We now need to prepare for the next stage, which is focused on how the industry can recover. That requires a detailed engagement with the different stakeholders. We need to agree on what we want to do collectively, what we need to prioritise and what the next actions should be.”

There are both short-term and long-term considerations to be agreed upon. EUROCONTROL has put in an application for €3 billion of research funding to secure long-term financing for technology improvements and in the short term has developed a Network Management (NM) Recovery Plan to help restore services. With the high-level plans in place the discussions are now focusing on more near-term priorities for enhancing the scalability of the industry – which operational improvements should we focus on? What benefits will digitisation bring and to whom? How do we continue to build capacity and efficiency into the system? When will these solutions need to be brought onstream? How can we do this in an environmentally friendly way and how can we communicate this message to the general public?

The Agency sees itself as a facilitator for these discussion among all stakeholders – the military, regulators, ANSPs, aircraft operators, social partners and more.

This is clearly the objective of the EUROCONTROL Stakeholder Forum webinars which we are currently running in order to engage with stakeholders, despite the challenges of remote interaction due to the pandemic, and to ensure that stakeholder views are firmly embedded in the work that the Agency does. The aim is to complement the existing formal consultation process to allow online fora for further discussion on specific topics.

“We’re trying to create a clear value chain, a clear linkage between what operationally and technically we think is required for stakeholder-driven service improvements,” says Philip Hughes.

There is less money available, capacity and efficiency need to be continually improved and the industry has to take account of the European Green Deal, says Hughes. 

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“We have as the basis for these discussions the conclusions of the Airspace Architecture Study and the Wise Persons’ Group report, which describe how we use Europe’s ATM infrastructure assets in a smarter way. In the Operational Excellence programme, which EUROCONTROL NM is putting together, there are 15 areas on which they are focusing and a number of near-term term initiatives which will enhance efficiency and capacity. But we also need to link these to longer-term initiatives, probably coming from the SESAR programme, which through industrialisation and deployment will deliver the solutions on time to meet those needs. Because once things start to recover the industry will move its focus away from ‘you are spending too much money’ to ‘you need to deliver more capacity’.”

This goes to the heart of the challenge for Europe’s ATM sector: how can we make the system more scalable so that capacity can be deployed in a more dynamic way? Whatever the solution, there will have to be much greater degrees of cooperation and coordination at a European level between ANSPs to ensure that smart solutions are consistent with the conclusions of the Airspace Architecture study. This is not primarily a technical challenge but an institutional one.

“We know from the Master Plan and the recent Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda (SRIA) the roadmap which is required in terms of delivering the technical solutions and how this can be done,” says Hughes. “We think we need to accelerate the delivery of some of those technical solutions particularly to provide scalability. The larger issues relate to the political and institutional problems and we will need to build solutions around these. That’s why this must be a stakeholder-driven discussion. In some ways the COVID crisis has become a catalyst for a new conversation because there won’t be the money in the system to do everything; everybody will have to work in a better and smarter way, which is also environmentally friendly to achieve the results.”

EUROCONTROL believes the institutional resistance to change within the European ATM system has meant that until now only a few very small steps have been taken to deliver on the business case possibilities of the Study. But the COVID crisis has meant that there is a new urgency to make significant changes to the way ATM services are delivered. For example, there are major savings to be made in reducing duplication of communications, navigation, surveillance/ air traffic management (CNS/ATM) resources, such as the over-interrogation of aircraft because of duplication of interrogation systems.

"We need to agree on what we want to do collectively, what we need to prioritise and what the next actions should be."

The emergence of Air Navigation Data Service Providers (ADSPs) will be significant because it will mean ANSPs will no longer have to own all their own infrastructure; they will be able to deliver the same or better levels of service by using the expertise of transnational ADSPs.

“There’s nothing to stop you from consolidating CNS/ATM infrastructure now, first in areas such as communications, because digitisation has taken over in a really tangible way with initiatives such as the new Pan-European Network Service (newPENS) infrastructure programme, and then from the surveillance side,” says Hughes. “If you could create an ADS-B ground network together with space-based ADSBP you could start to seriously reduce the number of monopulse secondary surveillance radars (MSSRs) and navigational infrastructure in Europe. Digitisation should be about scalability and efficiency.”

In many ways this process has already started. The advent of digital towers has seen ANSPs and industry working together on consolidated programmes and in the training area Entry Point North is now providing training infrastructure in Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Hungary and Belgium. In service delivery, ANSPs can be more open in the way they can dynamically reconfigure airspace to allow for cross-border management of airspace and enhance the mobility of the workforce to ensure there are always controllers available to meet traffic demand.

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This is a key element in developing a scalable ATM service delivery solution which can quickly adapt capacity levels to the needs of the market.

“I speak from personal experience here because after 9/11 I was given the job of putting 25 Irish air traffic controllers on secondment for three years into Germany, which was short of controllers at the time. We put them in three different centres following a very short conversion course and they were highly successful,” says Hughes. “So if you marry more flexibility and a better regulatory regime with technology there is no reason why you can’t use your ATCO resources more efficiently and make them more mobile.”

The viewpoints of social partners to the coming changes will be crucial in ensuring new technologies and working practices can be delivered in a timely, efficient way.

Philip Hughes says controllers recognise that the nature of their role will change as more artificial intelligence (AI) and automated decision-making tools become available.

“The tools that will be developed in the system will help the controller make decisions in a better way,” says Hughes. “We’ve already seen the benefit of this in technologies such as mediumterm conflict detection and other planning tools. And if we can demonstrate how these new technologies will be introduced it will go a long way toward assuaging their fears. As with any form of change it’s a cultural issue and the fear of the unknown.”

There is one other important priority which EUROCONTROL is working with other stakeholders to improve: the communication of aviation’s achievements in improving its environmental performance and the importance it wants to give to environmental issues as part of the recovery process.

“I think the Green Deal is extremely important to us all but aviation generally has been poor at explaining the value of the initiatives we have undertaken in carbon dioxide and noise reduction programmes,” says Hughes. “We don’t communicate this well enough and EUROCONTROL can bring all parties together to have a conversation on how we can improve this.”

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