Interview

“Our key financial purpose is to support and secure our operational strategy”

Bhev Chandrasena

For Bhev Chandrasena, the new EUROCONTROL Chief Financial Officer (CFO) responsible for the Central Route Charges Office and Finance, it is time now to introduce the right financial skillsets, tools and procedures to make the Agency better equipped to deal with the many macro-economic changes now buffeting the market.

You are new to the industry and EUROCONTROL – what’s your background?

From an aviation point-of-view I am a relatively recent arrival though I had a couple of aviation clients when I was trained at Grant Thornton’s London/Gatwick office. I would say that I am very much a finance and technology specialist, on top of my chartered accountancy and corporate treasurer skill sets. I have worked in several technology posts involved with digitalisation and was a General Manager of a high-growth technology and data start-up. Since the credit crisis in 2008 I have undertaken key leadership roles in finance transformation – rebooting to move up the finance value chain to deliver benefits for employers, stakeholders and customers.

What attracted you to EUROCONTROL?

For me, EUROCONTROL is a data and technology organisation supporting the industry that moves Europe closer. I love how data and artificial intelligence can be deployed to make aviation more sustainable and support regulatory change. The data which EUROCONTROL can access is key to supporting the aviation industry to become more adaptable and we should make the best use of it to improve operations for all stakeholders and users.

Another reason why I joined the Agency was Eamonn. I have been impressed by the way he has led the organisation over the last few years and his visible leadership during COVID-19 crisis was both exemplary and inspirational.

You have joined EUROCONTROL at the most challenging time in the industry’s history. How do you think we can improve the current finance and charging regime to take account of the current volatile nature of the market, especially in terms of reducing costs, increasing data analytics and ensuring resilience?

I would break this into two parts: the challenge and response. The underlying challenge is a boom-and-bust situation. No-one expected the commercial airline passenger business to come to a practical halt with such rapidity. Could we have been better prepared and prevented some of the impact of the crisis? Under the current system, States and air navigation service providers (ANSPs) depend on airspace users paying their charges to support the ANSP business models and the continuity of air navigation services, with no real competition.

The key to solvency, a cost-recovery model based on a relatively constant rate of traffic – has never been put under the kind of pressure as was seen during the COVID crisis.

On the response side, there are probably design issues that need to be addressed to support the sustainable progress of the industry and its resilience. ANSPs should fund “strategic bets” to improve the sector. By “strategic bets” I mean new technologies, new ideas to drive operational savings. We need an analysis of how to improve service delivery, to make the sector cleaner and with a focus on airspace users and our (in 2019) 200 million travellers.

The route charging regime tends to be rather formulaic – do you think we can, and should, change the current framework to encourage more sustainable aviation practices, for example?

When I see the white contrails of recovery in the clear blue sky I believe there is no better time to drive new behaviours. I am a big believer in incentivising behaviour to change the way things happen. I know it’s tempting not to change the model in good times but it’s always worth aiming at something better. Specifically on sustainable aviation, discussions are under way and progressing. The Central Route Charges Office (CRCO)’s systems, people and processes are ready to support States and ANSPs in these developments.

Are there any lessons, concepts and technologies from outside the aviation sector you think we could adopt to improve our financing and charging models?

First we need to understand what we do – which is establish charges based on flight messages, combine these into bills which are sent out to airspace users, collected and disbursed back to Member States as soon as possible. The core competencies are speed and accuracy. I would add that we need operational robustness and flexibility to ensure that we can access data and then model and remodel it to bring out the right insights.

To bring inspiration from the world outside into aviation I would first look at the telecoms sector where we have real-time billing based on large amounts of small-value transactions. What sets the route charges system model apart, however, is that the charges collected on behalf of States ensure the funding of a public service and is subject to specific international and European regulatory frameworks.

"The core competencies are speed and accuracy. I would add that we need operational robustness and flexibility"

How will the integrated Network Management (iNM) programme impact your role as CFO?

This is an exciting time for the Agency as we are currently undergoing a significant capital spend – the largest single such capex project since EUROCONTROL’s inception. It goes beyond just iNM and includes also significant targeted investments across our network.

The programme upgrades key assets across both tangible and intangible spaces as we make this Agency fit for the future. This means we need to rethink the entire contract-to-capitalisation cycle; from a single year to a multi-annual basis. This will also move from a static retrospective approach to a dynamic, forward-looking approach. We will have to rebuild processes and dedicate a team to manage this spend to demonstrate transparency and good governance.

"We need to rethink the entire contract-to-capitalisation cycle; from a single year to a multi-annual basis"

Aside from iNM what do you see as the Agency’s most significant financial challenges?

Our key financial purpose is to support and secure our operational strategy. Our main financial challenge is to execute invisibly, efficiently and effectively. We are a people organisation first and foremost and our largest challenge comes from the changing human capital asset. The Agency has set the bar high for the future and there are significant projects in the pipeline. The success of these will depend on having key skills at our disposal and identifying how these talents can fit into our Agency Business Plan. I am working with our human resource (HR) organisation to build an Agency People Plan to support our Business Plan to prioritise projects, identify the skills needed and then add the skill sets which will be key for our success going forward.

What other changes are you planning?

To be successful and stronger going forward we need the right tools. We will migrate to Cloud.Financials online, which is a suite of Oracle tools to help us redesign and move our organisation to a more modern way of working. It will stretch us but it will create the necessary tailwinds to providing timely, accurate and insightful management data. This will support decision-making and contribute to more robust processes.

How do you see EUROCONTROL’s role in financing ATM services develop over the next five years?

This is largely based on opportunity and intent. Prior to COVID-19 there were few opportunities for major change and the pandemic is still perceived by many as a one-off. The Ukraine war has created further opportunities to step up and support the industry. The one certainty now is that major changes will be happening again.

We need to be in step with our Member States’ wishes and needs, as they will dictate our next steps in this respect. However, this does not excuse us from not being prepared. We need to have the systems, processes and people in place to be nimble and ready to provide solutions and recommendations to all our stakeholders.

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