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Online Extra

Europe’s New ATM System Faces Challenges

Operators who fly to Europe are interested in knowing how the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research program (SESAR) – essentially the European version of the FAA’s Next Generation air traffic control system (NextGen) – is progressing.

For the flight department manager trying to develop a future avionics budget, there is a frustrating lack of information on SESAR. Worse yet, at least some operators fear they will be required to retrofit their cockpits quickly once the rules are established. And progress toward implementation, including establishing what equipment will be required and how much it might cost, is proceeding in fits and starts.

Benefits vs. Costs

SESAR is being designed to leverage modern satellite-based navigation and advanced computer technology to replace ground-based navaids, radar and analog processing protocols, thereby streamlining air traffic control and optimizing aircraft routing to save time and fuel. It certainly seems logical. But as with any broad-reaching plan, the devil lurks in the details. With implementation scheduled to commence in 2014, SESAR is well into its developmental phase, and some looming challenges stand in the way of a timely roll out of the new system.

The financial implications are significant. According to a study commissioned by the SESAR Joint Undertaking group (SJU), timely implementation of SESAR would add $604 billion to the European gross domestic product (GDP) between 2013 and 2030, representing an uptick of 2 percent over a scenario that does not include SESAR’s benefits. A delay of 10 years would cost $178 billion in GDP – as much as a $386 billion loss when indirect supplier benefits and “induced” benefits are included. As a result, SJU is pressing for timely decisions on policy and funding, warning, “The benefits of SESAR are extremely sensitive to its implementation timeline and coordination.”

As for costs, SJU estimates that SESAR will cost the entire system and its operators $43 billion, which include $16 billion to retrofit civil aircraft, $7 billion for forward-fit equipment, $10 billion for military aircraft and $10 billion for air navigation service providers. It’s too early to tell what the price to equip an individual business aircraft will be.

Harmonization Hurdles

While most U.S. operators hope that SESAR develops in coordination with NextGen, there is an even bigger challenge when it comes to ensuring that all standards and protocols are compatible, not just on both sides of the Atlantic, but also with worldwide air traffic control systems of the future. It’s not just the U.S. and Europe that will have to read from the same sheet of music, but also Russia, China, India, Africa and other countries.

Former FAA Administrator Marion Blakey (now CEO of the U.S. Aerospace Industries Association) believes the International Civil Aviation Organization is committed to increasingly globalizing this ATM modernization initiative. This is to be accomplished through block builds that begin with presently installed equipment as stepping-stones that move forward with advanced technologies and procedures. It is intended that these blocks be coordinated in such a way that all stakeholders make the same technological and regulatory moves based on a parallel schedules.

The most profound short-term challenges to SESAR are questions of funding and political cooperation among all the countries involved. The breadth of financial, technical, operational and political elements that must be brought together covers a tremendous amount of sometimes less-than common ground. Bo Redeborn, Eurocontrol principal director of ATM, said that good progress has been made in several areas, including harmonizing requirements for ADS-B and performance-based navigation (PBN) standards. He said the challenge of harmonizing data communications networks is the most critical hurdle at present.

According to SJU, NextGen (the U.S. aviation system modernization initiative) and SESAR have different time frames for implementation of data communications technology. While both sides will eventually adopt the global Aeronautical Telecommunications Network (ATN) protocol, the U.S. plans to evolve toward the ATN protocol from its existing Future Air Navigation System (FANS) standard; presently used in oceanic airspace. Europe hopes to implement its data communications protocol by 2018, but according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), FAA officials have projected it could be as long as 2023 before the U.S. gets there.

Blakey said, “It’s not too exotic, but the challenge is in integrating and harmonizing [global data-comm systems]. The key for data-comm is spectrum analysis.” She said it is critical to establish bandwidth without compromising the GPS spectrum.

Blakey added that the biggest challenges to funding aren’t with ground systems, but with cockpit avionics. She said, “We’ll have 794 ground stations for ADS-B in place by 2013, but will the aircraft be ready? Can we come up with innovative ways to finance the part of the air traffic system that’s in the sky – the avionics suite?” She suggested some form of “public/private partnership.”

Redeborn also discussed “buy-in” from the industry. “Buy-in is related to the fact that we need to combine a number of applications into single enablers to make a positive business case – reasonably big packages. Failure to do so is the biggest threat to making this happen [in a timely manner].”

NBAA Director of International Operations Bill Stine said, “Suppose I’m an aircraft operator and I want to equip [for NextGen, SESAR and beyond]. Where do I go? The avionics manufacturers have a difficult business case for [NextGen/SESAR] datalink equipment, for example. It’s not like dealing with the demands of an airline that might have 130 aircraft requiring equipage.”

Stine said part of the challenge in harmonizing SESAR and NextGen is that Europe is more able to set policy by directive, when compared with the notices of proposed rulemaking and associated public comment on this side of the Atlantic. For example, avionics manufacturers chose to wait for updated minimum operations performance specifications for ADS-B equipment before putting packages together for market.

Cooperation Underway

Though the challenge of creating a worldwide, standardized modernization program is formidable, there is no shortage of effort from all the major stakeholders. The European Business Aviation Association (EBAA) has its representatives involved in SESAR working groups, ensuring that business aviation interests will be a part of the final program.

EBAA president Brian Humphries notes that an EBAA consortium was very active in Single European Sky work early on, contributing about 300 man-days of work on it during 2010 alone. EBAA has had four experts involved: one each from Dassault, NetJets, Eurocopter and CHC. Humphries added, “We need to ensure that the technology, such as all-weather operations and steep approaches, can be exploited by business aviation so we can take advantage of all the opportunities presented by Single European Sky.”

Last March, representatives from the FAA, the European Union signed a memorandum of cooperation establishing a formal collaborative structure for NextGen and SESAR modernization. And this November, ICAO will hold its 12th Air Navigation Conference at which global ATM harmonization and block builds will undoubtedly make up a substantial portion of the agenda. Business aviation will be represented by IBAC at this two-week conference. But some skeptics are concerned that all the talk will not necessarily lead to a timely migration to SESAR and NextGen. Time will tell.

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