Europe tackles air traffic challenge

Air traffic management over European skies has emerged as a dire challenge for the continent. Just ask any frequent flier and you will soon have enough stories to fill your own travel book. Long flight delays, cancellations, and air traffic control disputes are only a few of the issues blotting Europe’s air traffic management copybook. The situation, though, according to the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol), appears to be improving, with fewer flight delays, aided by improved air traffic control management. «We saw a distinct improvement last year,» Eurocontrol declared in a statement released on January 9. «The average air traffic flow management (ATFM) delay per flight dropped by 12.7 percent with respect to the year 2000.» Although this news would certainly bring a big smile to the faces of travelers who have grown accustomed to flight delays, European skies are not yet free of snags. Ankara’s recent action in freezing the use of 10 air corridors over the Aegean, on the pretext of following specific procedures regulated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), provides a fresh insight into the perplexities faced in European air traffic management. Ankara demanded in October that planes using two Greek air corridors over the Aegean file flight plans with Turkish authorities. Citing the law of air transportation, which demands that corridors over international waters must have the unanimous approval of all ICAO members, Ankara has managed to freeze the use of four air corridors over the northern Aegean and six over the southern Aegean and Icarian Sea region, which carried the greatest part of Greece’s international air traffic and had great economic value. A subsequent Notice to Air Men (NOTAM) issued by Ankara asked that flight plans be filed with the Turkish authorities for planes using the Greek air corridors G-18 and R-19. A small part of the first corridor enters the Istanbul Flight Information Region (FIR) and the second borders it for a little way. Eurocontrol talks Greek and Turkish officials were to meet on Tuesday in Brussels with Eurocontrol directors in a last-ditch effort to end the dispute, which has caused major delays and handicapped numerous international flights in the region. The Greek-Turkish air-space dispute – said to have been manufactured by Ankara in a drive to place more issues on the table with Greece – does not stand alone on Eurocontrol’s agenda. Yesterday, the European air traffic control agency concluded a two-day air-space management workshop in Brussels, where representatives from member countries of the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) discussed ways to harmonize and simplify their air-space. «The workshop will consider the international, national (and) regulatory air traffic management service provision, air traffic management safety and legal issues applicable to these operational improvements,» the agency said. Faced by the recent Balkan conflicts and the flight restrictions that made most of southeastern Europe inaccessible to commercial flights, Europe has been striving to put its air traffic house in order. Problems, though, have deep roots. «The short overview of air- space management organization in all ECAC states and the diagrams on current air-space organizations in some states show quite clearly a lack of harmonized air-space organization,» Eurocontrol notes in a report. The agency recently began taking its first baby steps toward implementing an initiative by the European Commission for a «Single European Sky.» The organization of the program «is based on the principles of contiguous volumes of air space, not constrained by national boundaries, providing maximum freedom for all air-space users consistent with the required level of safety in the provision of air traffic management services, while making due allowance for the security and defense needs of individual states.» Plans for the program were laid out by the management of Eurocontrol in talks back in late November with the chairman and 40 members of the Transport Committee of the European Parliament. September 11 attacks The terrorist attacks of September 11 in the United States brought profound changes to air travel in Europe. Plans for flight safety had to be revised, air traffic management programs were put on hold, and airlines that once were major players in air travel had to close down. «The general economic downturn experienced in 2001 by the entire aviation industry, precipitated by the September 11 events, affected air traffic growth significantly,» Eurocontrol attested in its January 9 report. «In 2001, a little over 8,390,000 flights were handled in the ECAC area compared to over 8,440,000 flights recorded in the previous year, representing a 0.6-percent decrease in traffic.» The agency notes that the downward trend was most evident in the four-month period, September-December 2001, which registered a 4.4-percent drop in traffic over the equivalent period in 2000. «The full effects of the September 11 attacks and their consequent impact on civil aviation are not yet known but the difficulties facing the airline industry are already apparent,» Eurocontrol underlines. «Transatlantic flights, representing 4 percent of European flights, have been the most affected by these events.» According to the agency, the European area control centers which reported the highest decreases in traffic demand were Brindisi, Paris, Rhein, and Shannon. But this sharp decline in air traffic over European skies had its positive side – an improved record in flight delays once the aircraft is in the air. «This unforeseen short-term reduction in traffic demand has contributed to a 17-percent decrease in ATFM delays (the average ATFM delay reported during the period was 3.3 minutes as against 4 minutes for the same period last year),» Eurocontrol underlined in its September-October 2001 report. Scaling down flight delays in Europe will take a lot more than a short-term reaction by consumers. And the agency recognizes that. «Eurocontrol is nevertheless striving to reinforce ongoing efforts to achieve a further decrease in delays and continues to act to provide services to both air traffic service providers and air-space users in order to enhance the performance and safety of the European air traffic management system.»

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