What it takes to maintain Europe's competitive edge in aeronautics and ATM

Jan Pie

Jan Pie, Secretary General of ASD – ­ the voice of Europe’s aerospace, security and defence industries – examines some of the competitive challenges facing Europe’s aviation technology sector.

Amid rising geopolitical tensions and increasing geoeconomic competition, the aviation sector is undergoing a period of tremendous innovation and transformation, marked especially by the digitalisation and decarbonisation of air transport.

The European aeronautics industry plays a key role in this innovation and transformation, driving interconnected applications by providing state-of- the-art digital solutions. This applies to the latest generation of aircraft as well as to ground- and aviation-related services, in particular air traffic management (ATM), which make flying safer and more efficient.

Manufacturers, together with our partners from the airports, airspace users and the ATM industry, are committed to reaching net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 from all flights within and departing from the EU. Via modernised aircraft and ground systems, efficient engines, optimised operations through modern ATM, new propulsion systems and the adaption of our products to the growing use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), the aeronautics industry is the cornerstone of efforts aiming to reach net zero emission aviation.

A thriving aeronautics industry which creates thousands of safe, highly paid and highly qualified jobs is essential for Europe’s sovereignty in times of growing global uncertainties. Aeronautics companies and the defence, security and space industries form a unique ecosystem in which technological advancements in one sector potentially benefit all others. Maintaining this know-how and innovation capacity is absolutely crucial in an era when technology is a decisive component of global power struggles.

In other words, innovation in the European aviation sector has a technological, ecological, economic and even strategic dimension. As mentioned above, optimised operations through a more digital and efficient ATM have a lot of potential in this respect. Advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) will enable more automation. Autonomous functionalities in ATM will in turn allow increased safety, even as air traffic increases, and in mixed operations.

Achieving better efficiency in ATM holds the promise of maximising capacity in the air as demand is rising, while reaching the optimum in routes flown by all air operators, which again would eliminate a considerable amount of emissions and reduce delays for passengers. Facing this complex challenge will require the deployment of digital tools (provided by aeronautics companies) to support the day-to-day operational decision-making of ATM players, unlocking the power of the latest breakthrough technologies fostered by the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR). The main objective that we should aim for and where we can generate a positive impact globally in the coming years, is making European airspace the most efficient and environmentally friendly sky to fly in the world, and to do that as rapidly as possible.

"The main objective that we should aim for and where we can generate a positive impact globally in the coming years, is making European airspace the most efficient and environmentally friendly sky to fly in the world."

Many of these necessary changes will be enabled or enhanced by progress in research. ASD therefore calls on decision-makers at the European level to guarantee sufficient public funding under the next EU Research Framework Programme to allow for the continuation of the Clean Aviation and SESAR public-private partnerships, while also providing additional public funds to address emerging topics outside the scope of these two projects. This will be paramount for the European aeronautical industry to remain competitive at a global level and for the EU to meet its ambitious climate- and aviation-related goals.

In more specific terms, there are a number of concrete research streams that need to be addressed in response to aeronautics – in particular ATM – challenges. This refers for instance to: strengthening of research on highly efficient aircraft propulsion systems; continued efforts on noise and non-CO2 emission reduction; digital technologies, including artificial intelligence, to increase autonomy and connectivity in aviation; safer operations and cyber security technologies on board and on the ground, based on a more resilient on-board and ground infrastructure; a digital ATM system contributing to the delivery of the Digital European Sky; emerging concepts such as unmanned aircraft systems (drones) and innovative (or advanced) air mobility.

The pace, quantity and quality of innovations are strongly determined by the regulatory environment in which companies operate. With this in mind, there is an urgent need for more consistency in EU legislation. To name just one example: some of the current provisions in the REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals) legislative proposal prevent the development and use of safer and more efficient products, making it harder for the aeronautics industry to reach its decarbonisation objectives. If Europe does not want to fall further behind America and Asia, it needs to become a more attractive and business-friendly location for innovators and investors with a predictable, supporting and reasonable regulatory environment.

"... the European aeronautics industry is a key provider of innovative solutions, in particular with a view to the digitalisation and decarbonisation of air transport ..."

A concrete example is uncrewed aviation solutions. The United States and China invest heavily in vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) projects and drones and provide innovation-friendly regulation, whereas Europe’s spending remains at modest levels and limits the unfolding of this high-potential technology with tight regulatory constraints. This must urgently change in order to catch up Europe’s leeway and to ensure that our highly innovative companies will be the frontrunners of urban air mobility and drone developments.

Furthermore, in the EU, the competition policy framework is an important achievement, but it can also bring some constraints that tie the local economy and its innovation potential. For example, the criteria for EU Member States with regards to State aid rules are strict in terms of location and size of the companies and entail funding caps. However, in aeronautics, our industry develops high-value products with a long lifetime span, which in turn requires massive long-lead capital investments that the private sector alone cannot provide. This also concerns necessary investments for innovations that are indispensable on the path towards net zero aviation. Hence, there is a need for more flexibility in the EU competition policy framework to ease access to State aid programmes to a wider range of companies – even more as other global players strongly support their local companies – including large ones. This is about creating a level playing field for European companies, not giving them an unfair advantage in worldwide competition.

In conclusion, among a myriad of challenges in aviation, the European aeronautics industry is a key provider of innovative solutions, in particular with a view to the digitalisation and decarbonisation of air transport and especially when it comes to state-of-the art equipment for modern air traffic management. Yet our companies need support from the public side in Europe in terms of investment and funding, fostering research, creating an innovation-friendly business environment and levelling market conditions vis-à-vis state-sponsored firms from other parts of the world. Europe has a strong, innovative and world-class aeronautics industry. The time to act in order to maintain its leading place as a global pioneer of innovation is now.

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