The aviation industry is not like every other high-tech industry. To ensure the highest levels of safety, we are more conservative and rely on well proven technology. This can justifiably mean that sometimes the sector’s ability to rapidly innovate is limited. But does this also justify the snail’s pace that our regulations travel at as they catch up with modern demands of aviation? Definitely not!
One regulation that has been progressing at a glacial pace is the Single European Sky in the form of SES 2+. We finally have “white smoke” on the chapter IV “Network Management” part of the proposed regulation. This chapter defines the purpose of the different network management functions and emphasises that it “…shall lead towards the sustainable and efficient use of the airspace…” and the functions themselves e.g airspace design, crisis management or monitoring of the proper functioning of infrastructure. This agreement took 31 months since the Commission published the draft proposal. And this is considered the least controversial chapter of the SES 2+ regulation.
The first attempt at getting an agreement on SES 2+ came about in 2013 because everybody saw the need for an update SES II to align with the current technology and operational concepts until such time a complete overhaul would be feasible. Common sense would agree that this need for future proofing is much more pressing today. How long will the aviation industry have to wait for the remaining chapters to be agreed? How long will the aviation industry have to wait for a regulation that ensures that the benefits of technical developments are fully realised?
Meanwhile in the air, we have aircraft capable of fully utilising satellite navigation. This enables airlines to plan the optimum trajectories for flights which save fuel and reduce our environmental impact through concepts such as Free Route Airspace. However, despite no longer having any technical impediments to achieving this, we do not have a regulation that will unlock the full potential of this new technology.
Meanwhile on the ground, discussions are ongoing to further develop the job of Air Traffic Controllers (ATCO) to make best use of digitalisation and make the job more attractive. Concepts are available and changes to licensing are being discussed to have controlling capacity moved to where demand is, without actually moving the physical location of the ATCO. However, once again we are struggling to have a supportive regulation in place.
When we examine the impact of SES2+ being stuck in a forever holding pattern, we must remember that it also impacts on the economic regulation and the performance and charging scheme for Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs). This regulation is basically addressing the monopolistic structure of ANSPs (generally one per state) and defines a set of indicators to measure ANSP performance. At the moment Airlines, ANSPs and other organisations including EUROCONTROL or EASA are assessing the possibility of introducing better performance indicators for ANSPs. Such indicators will help measure performance so that customer service, i.e. the service to airlines, can be improved. Unfortunately, even if SES 2+ is adopted by the end of 2023, it seems the efforts to introduce such sensible changes into this secondary legislation are insurmountable. As a result, the status quo will be maintained until the end of the next reference period, which would not be before 2028 in the best case or 2030 under normal circumstances.
So where do we stand after all of this? We do have an agreed chapter IV, but beyond that, not much else. Future proofing our legislation and regulation requires policymakers to go much further. Chapter IV now cements the status quo.
Going forward, this cannot be the modus operandi. We need people leaving their entrenched positions and allowing regulation that supports visionary change that can create a modern airspace across Europe. If all of those involved can even just begin to change their mindset, we can unleash a creative approach to regulation that will future proof it for generations to come and leave Europe with a modern, digitalised and efficient airspace.