Richard Deakin

Last night’s final glimpse behind the scenes at Heathrow in Airport Live also gave us a glimpse into what the future may hold for the aviation industry.

Inevitably, as well as huge strides forward in aircraft and engine technology, and the design of our airports, we also need to think about the future of our airspace and how we manage it.

Airspace is the invisible pillar of national infrastructure.  Airports don’t work without it.

The management of our skies is not something most of us think about on a daily basis – yet it is absolutely fundamental to safely transport hundreds of thousands of people across the world each and every day.

Meeting demands

In order to meet the demands of the future – to sustain already high safety standards, reduce emissions and reduce costs – we need to have a pretty radical rethink about how we manage our airspace, right across the globe.

Airspace is sovereign, and I can’t see that changing.  At the moment, most countries have a State regulator who sets out what is required to manage the airspace of that country effectively, and a national body which has, in effect, a monopoly to deliver this service. While this works to the extent that aircraft still fly safely from country to country, it does mean that there is a lot of duplication in activities and that there is no competition driving efficiencies and improvements to services.

Airlines don’t care who provides their air traffic service – they just want the most direct route from A to B, and can’t understand why they get fuel-greedy, circuitous routeings just because of invisible national boundaries in the sky.

To meet the changing demands of the 21st century (predicted higher numbers of flights mean increasingly complex airspace to manage and a pressure to reduce costs, reduce emissions and further improve already high safety standards) we need to find a better way of managing our airspace. This means making the best use of emerging technologies and working more closely together as nation States to provide services as efficiently as possible.

Single European Sky

The European Commission is driving towards this kind of interstate harmony through its Single European Sky initiative.  It has encouraged member States to set up functional blocks of airspace where neighbouring countries treat their airspace as one (in the UK and Ireland we are doing that more and more successfully) and its technology research programme, SESAR, aims to ensure that the various ATM systems talk to each other to provide the most efficient service possible.

The idea is also to harmonise SESAR with the USA’s equivalent technology development, fostering the start of what could be a globally interoperable network.  It’s a tremendously exciting vision – but it’s still a long way off.

To deliver this might mean introducing competition to the services provided for the airlines.

States would still retain sovereignty over the sky above them but they would start to think of it more as a shared resource. Instead of automatically presuming the service in a particular country’s airspace is carried out by that country, perhaps each country should be able to select the provider who can best deliver the service it requires.  Some countries have complex airspace needs, others have more simple and less costly requirements, so we need to acknowledge that in providing a pool of services, one size isn’t going to fit all.

The debate is intensifying around how our skies need to change to meet both existing and future demand. However, I hope the last few nights’ TV has given everyone a valuable insight into, and appreciation of, this vital piece of ‘invisible infrastructure’.


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