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Up in the sky — auditing Europe’s air traffic management systems, step by step…

Source: Pixabay.

Traffic congestion on the road is not very pleasant, and neither is congestion when travelling by rail. But probably traffic congestion in the air is the worst, because the safety element kicks in almost immediately: a close encounter can be catastrophic. Air Traffic Management (ATM) is the result of a quest for safety and efficiency in a context of growing traffic and limited space. Afonso Malheiro, head of task for two ECA audits in this area, sheds some light on why the ECA is examining this specific area of transport and mobility.

By Afonso Malheiro, Investment for Cohesion, Growth and Inclusion Directorate

A myriad of abbreviations… and regulations

Air traffic management refers to the systems that allow aircraft to go from origin to destination using the shortest path possible, without delays and remaining at a safe distance from each other. ACC, ANSP, ATFM, CNS, DUC, FAB, IFR, NSA, SES, SESAR — there is probably no other ECA report which has used more abbreviations than special report 18/2017: Single European Sky: a changed culture but not a single sky. Similarly, the report features an extensive glossary — which, however, is still just a very modest attempt to decode the immense amounts of jargon that populate the world of air traffic management. Both are indicators of the complex and technical nature of this specific sector of air transport.

Our first audit of the ‘Single European Sky’

Back in 2015, when we first started to look at this wonderful new world (new for us, certainly), the task seemed daunting. Initial reading material revealed not only the multiple abbreviations but also a highly complex interconnection between airports, airlines, air navigation service providers and other stakeholders. As postulated by the ‘butterfly effect,’ a flight delayed because of a missing passenger, a strike by air traffic controllers or a thunderstorm over an airport can have a cascade of consequences over the entire network.

In that multi-dimensional matrix of causes and consequences, how then to audit the performance of the system? Additionally, commercial aviation is extremely safety-oriented, since the overriding expectation of a fare-paying passenger is a safe landing. Consequently, there is a myriad of regulations to comb through.

To audit ATM means knowing ATM

Such challenges are not insurmountable. However, asking the right questions requires a transformation, partly at least, of the typical auditor into an expert in air traffic management.

Special report 18/2017: Single European Sky: a changed culture but not a single sky

In this audit, the ECA reviewed selected key components of the Single European Sky (SES) initiative, the aim of which is to improve the overall performance of Air Traffic Management (ATM).

We concluded that the initiative addressed a clear need and has led to a greater emphasis on efficiency in ATM. However, European airspace management remains fragmented and we have not achieved an SES yet. EU funding for the technological elements of the SES has so far reached €730 million and is due to grow to €3.8 billion by 2020.

Our auditors visited government departments, air navigation providers and national supervisors in five Member States, as well as key policy, operational and industrial stakeholders. They found that the concept of an SES was justified, because European air traffic management was hindered by national monopolies and fragmentation.

There have been no substantial reductions in navigation charges and ATM-related delays have started to increase again. The SES’s technological pillar, the SESAR project, has promoted coordination and is gradually releasing technological improvements, but has fallen behind its initial schedule and has become significantly more costly than anticipated.

The ECA made several recommendations to the European Commission and the Member States to help improve the effectiveness of the SES. They concern, among other things, reducing fragmentation, ensuring that national supervisory authorities are fully independent, reviewing some key performance indicators in the scheme and reinforcing the accountability of the SESAR Joint Undertaking.

And apart from the usual ingredients — motivation, audit methodology and a reasonable amount of work — such a transformation requires … time. Herein lies the true challenge of conducting a performance audit on a technical area: how to ask the right questions, explore the right topics, go beneath the surface of facts and figures and finally report on relevant conclusions and recommendations within a reasonable time frame?

Managing the scope

From the beginning, when we started looking at how to audit the ‘Single European Sky,’ we considered that it would not be feasible to cover all the different policy components, even if several of them seemed closely intertwined. We therefore made a deliberate choice to focus the audit scope on the regulatory elements deemed most relevant and mature — the regulations on performance and charges, the functional airspace blocks. In addition, we decided to include, at least in part, the technological component of the policy, the SESAR project (Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research), which is co-funded by the EU.

However, in this first audit, we made a split: we looked at the definition and development phases of SESAR (i.e. the master plan for modernisation and the R&D effort needed to accomplish it) but we excluded the actual deployment of such new technologies in a real operational environment. We had two good reasons for this: firstly, at that time — end of 2015 and early 2016 — deployment was only just starting and thus we would not have had much to say. Secondly, the audit scope was much more focused — and manageable. Any other option would have prolonged the audit, endangering its timely conclusion.

One particular feature of the aviation industry is that to operate an airline you need to be very competitive and tough. Just recall the famous quote attributed to Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group: “If you want to be a millionaire, start with a billion and launch a new airline”. In such a competitive environment, every euro and every minute counts. An aircraft on the ground does not generate any revenue. Having it orbit around a congested airport is worse — economically as well as environmentally. One result of the high costs of air traffic congestion is that researchers and consultants have been studying air traffic management for decades. There is therefore plenty of material: studies, reports, academic papers, even books on ATM performance going back to the 1980s . This reading material provided substantial help in identifying the problems, possible causes, performance indictors and a wide range of auditable aspects of EU intervention in this area. Without the help and support of the ECA librarians, this research would have been difficult.

Benchmarking overseas

The need to accommodate ever more traffic in a constant volume of airspace is not a specifically European problem. For this audit, we therefore also wanted to look beyond Europe. The United States and Canada, for example, face similar challenges. How do they handle them? In the United States, air traffic management is carried out directly by the government and funded by taxes. In Canada, different stakeholders have come together to form a company dedicated to air traffic management, which is financed through fees applied to airlines using Canadian airspace. Talking to key staff from these North American organisations helped us in our search for best practices that could potentially also be used in the European context.

Closing the cycle: auditing the deployment of SESAR

In 2019, the same audit team is closing the cycle on SESAR by looking at the component that we had excluded back in 2015: the deployment of new operational concepts and technologies in the day-to-day operational environment. As we assess the EU’s intervention in this modernisation effort, we are in fact doing a consecutive performance audit on different components of the same EU policy. But we do so with the comfort of now being, from the start, much more familiar with all the abbreviations, the causes and the consequences. I cannot stress enough how valuable I find this approach — a cycle of audits by a dedicated team — in actually delivering a relevant and timely contribution to assessing the impact of EU policies and programmes, and to the sound financial management of the EU budget. Hopefully, this will also contribute to less congestion and even more safety in Air Traffic Management in the years to come.

This article was first published on the January-February 2019 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.

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