European airspace – acting as one

The lonely scientist, covered by his papers alone in his room, talking to no one, is extinct. Science happens world wide in connection with partners around the globe, frequent travels are part of the daily life. Like for anybody else, delays are quite an annoying concomitant, especially if you travel by plane to reach your destination faster. Very often in Europe the cause for a late arrival is Air Traffic Control (ATC) related.

Hot spots of European air travel (image source: FABEC

Today the control of the airspace over Europe resembles a patchwork rug, where each national air navigation service provider uses different technology and different procedures. Thus an airline pilot flying from Warsaw to Madrid has to speak to 45 different controllers during his flight. When entering a new sector, a pilot has to change the radio frequency and establish contact with the new air traffic controller. The heading, airspeed and level of the aircraft constantly has to be adapted according to the requirements of the national controllers. Europe maintains around 50 en-route control centers, hundreds of approach control units and towers. Air traffic is handled in more than 650 control sectors, which are organized in reference to national borders.

The vision of a single European sky has been around since computers are an everyday household item. There is just one slight problem to reach this goal and that is the national consciousness and pride of each country. Nations behave just like the people who are behind it: giving up own property or own achievements for something that is considered less valuable for oneself is hard when not impossible.

A program pursued by the European Commission: the Single European Sky (SES) aims to solve this problem. It moves in small steps. SES has the goal that airspace should be organized according to main traffic flows instead of national borders. Currently, 38 countries are part of the SES initiative, 27 of which are Member States of the Europe Union. First steps are made: Building bigger airspace clusters out of the European airspace patchwork is considered to be a milestone. Those new airspaces are called Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs). A FAB is a segment of airspace extending over several countries with the States maintaining their national sovereignty.

Alternative routing between Paris and Munich (image source: FABEC)

Technology and flight procedures will be adapted accordingly. The goal is to cut costs while still handling air traffic in a safe, efficient and environmentally friendly manner.

Nine FABs aim for that and shall enhance the European air traffic flow. This can be done for instance by shorter direct connections between two airports (city pairs), like redesigning the airspace between Munich, Germany, and Paris, France, for maximum efficiency. In coordination with the military this route could be reduced by 34 nautical miles (63 Kilometers), which saves 185 Kilograms of kerosene. Shorter routings can also be planned at times of low traffic volume, maybe at night. Bottlenecks like in the south of England or at national borders within a functional block, as well as the connection to the adjacent airspace shall be improved by installing the FABs.

The heart of the Functional Airspace Blocks: Europe Central (FABEC) is one of the busiest and most complex airspace in the world with most of the largest European airports located here. On December 2, 2010 FABEC will be realized by the signing of the States Treaty that takes place in Brussels (Belgium). The six States of Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Switzerland and the Netherlands will sign this treaty relating to the establishment of the Functional Airspace Block Europe Central FABEC for a common airspace at the heart of Europe and to organize air traffic management irrespective of national borders. And we all hope that this will make our flights within Europe faster and more on the scheduled arrival time – to meet our partners on time and speed up the science exchange.

There have been several initiatives in Europe to create functional airspace blocks in adjacent airspaces: • BALTIC FAB – Poland, Lithuania • BLUE MED – Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Malta (Tunisia, Egypt and Albania as associated partners, Jordan has an observer status) • DANUBE FAB – Bulgaria, Romania • FAB CENTRAL EUROPE – Austria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina • FAB EUROPE CENTRAL – France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg (United Kingdom joined as a cooperative partner) • NUAC PROGRAMME – Denmark, Sweden • NEFAB – Norway, Finland, Estonia, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden • SW PORTUGAL-SPAIN FAB – Spain, Portugal • FAB UK IRELAND – United Kingdom, Ireland (Image source: FABEC)

Featured image credit: Jirsak via Shutterstock

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Helga Kleisny

Helga is a freelance science writer specialising in aviation. She is a book author and instructor in journalism and aviation. She enjoys communicating scientific subjects in an understandable way and wants to show that research and science are fun.
Helga Kleisny

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