Europe’s most radical programme is 10 years old

20 January 2012

On 24 January 2002 at 01.00 UTC, the Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (RVSM) programme went live. At one stroke, 6,000 air traffic controllers in 41 states allocated aircraft to six new flight levels. 25% capacity gains were made between 2002 and 2007.

It was the biggest, most important ATM project Europe had ever seen - and the first one to be implemented right across the continent, from North Africa to the Arctic. From one minute to the next, aircraft were safely separated by 1,000 feet instead of 2,000 - and this without undue delay.

The Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (RVSM) programme increased capacity in the airspace of 41 States by providing six extra flight levels between 29,000 feet and 41,000 feet, bringing the total to thirteen.

By reducing the number of aircraft sharing a given flight level, this change not only enhanced safety - by allowing more aircraft to operate at their preferred flight levels, it underpinned better en-route performance, reduced delays, lowered fuel consumption and boosted capacity.

Gains sustained to present day

A clear picture of a change was recorded in the pattern of delays. The summer peak in 2002 saw delays cut by a third and from that date spring and autumn see relatively little delay with a tendency to go up just at the very peak of summer, and in cases of bad weather in winter. Both of these gains have been sustained to the present day.

The average yearly cost benefits for aircraft operators were estimated at around €3.9 billion, savings derived from reductions in delay and fuel consumption. Europe’s upper airspace capacity grew by up to 25%, helping airlines and other airspace users meet rising demand more effectively and simultaneously make substantial fuel savings.

Following the implementation of RVSM in the EUR RVSM airspace, EUROCONTROL’s Experimental Centre near Paris did more analysis, focusing on environmental aspects. The environmental impact study showed a 5% reduction in fuel burn and CO2 emissions above FL290. The impact across the entire airspace was about a 1% reduction. In 2002 this translated into about 1 million Tonnes of CO2 saved annually. It is probably the only programme in ATM that reduced fuel burn and emissions so much through a single implementation.

In many ways, in managing the Europe-wide implementation of RVSM, EUROCONTROL foreshadowed its future role as Network Manager - ten years earlier.

The RVSM Programme proved conclusively that with leadership and commitment, all partners in the European aviation industry can work successfully together to improve the way Europe runs its airspace.

What were the challenges ? What is still being done ?

Read more about the challenges, safety, ATC systems, height monitoring accuracy, training 6000 ATCO across Europe, 100000 pilots worldwide, support to other regions and access more articles about the Regional Monitoring Agency, the Height Monitoring Units and the Altimetry System Errors.

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