U.S. and EU Sign Deal to Boost Cooperation on Air Traffic
The U.S. and the European Union expect to sign as soon as Friday an agreement that will increase cooperation on their new-generation systems for highly efficient air-traffic management, people close to the talks say.
Authorities from both sides of the Atlantic have been working for years to develop satellite-based navigation equipment that will enable pilots to fly more direct routes and provide controllers with advanced tools to safely handle many more planes in the same airspace.
Until now, the formal U.S. and EU efforts have been separate, though companies and government officials from both sides of the Atlantic have shared concepts. Industry officials around the globe have worried that the world’s two biggest aviation markets could end up developing incompatible solutions. Airline executives have warned that they can’t afford to install multiple systems to fly in different parts of the world.
The deal regulators hope to sign Friday in Madrid, if negotiations are finalized, will for the first time allow direct cooperation between technical experts working on the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen system and the EU’s Sesar Joint Undertaking.
“Now it’s time for engineers to come together around the table,” a Sesar spokesman said.
The agreement “provides for more than 20 distinct cooperation areas” and builds on previous pacts covering “joint research and procedures” for near-term enhancements, said David Grizzle, the FAA’s general counsel and acting deputy administrator, at a U.S.-EU aviation-safety conference last week in New Orleans. U.S. airlines and lawmakers have said they want to see demonstrations of early gains before making longer-term commitments. Developing and implementing NextGen is expected to cost more than $15 billion through 2020, split between taxpayers and aircraft operators, including airlines, business jets and owners of smaller planes.
The goal of NextGen and Sesar is to increase the capacity and safety of air-travel networks while cutting flight times and congestion. Using computerized guidance systems linked via satellites, aircraft will keep a safe distance from each other in the air, navigate around storms and even keep track of runway hazards. Planes will also be able to fly closer to each other on shorter, more fuel-efficient routes, which should cut emissions of greenhouse gases.
One huge challenge is devising ways to utilize two separate satellite constellations. It will take more than a decade to develop and fully deploy the proposed systems, which frustrates some aviation officials, who want quick boosts.
“We need more mandates” from governments to install and use new technology, said Manfred Mohr, head of Sesar work at German aviation group Deutsche Lufthansa AG, at the New Orleans conference. “We need them a little faster.”
Sesar is being jointly developed by the EU and aerospace technology companies including the Airbus division of European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co., Italy’sFinmeccanica SpA and Honeywell International Inc. Sesar’s research phase has a budget of €2.1 billion ($2.6 billion), funded by European institutions and industry, but will cost many billions more to deploy. Boeing Co. and Rockwel Collins Inc. are among the U.S. aerospace firms that have done preliminary work to ensure the U.S. and European systems are compatible.
How airlines will pay for the new equipment remains a major stumbling block. European carriers are slightly more enthusiastic about the plan than U.S. airlines because air-traffic management in the EU is far less efficient, and the EU will soon start charging airlines for carbon emissions, which are tied to fuel consumption. But cash-strapped operators on both sides of the Atlantic are pressing regulators to deliver big efficiency gains.
The pact is particularly important because the U.S. and EU are taking very different approaches to achieve similar aims. The FAA is developing components of its system and deploying them as they mature, for incremental gains. Sesar plans bigger incremental steps but will take them more slowly, as larger elements of Europe’s envisioned network come together.
Hank Krakowski, head of the FAA’s air-traffic control organization, said recently that the U.S. already is demonstrating the advantages of satellite-based navigation in limited areas, including around several commercial airports, while Europeans “haven’t deployed anything yet.”
The FAA aims to roll out the new satellite technologies around more U.S. airports, where they are likely to provide the most benefit in reducing delays.
For Europe, the expected agreement should allow faster development of new systems. It is a “very good move for us because we are … a little held back” due to uncertainty over questions of system compatibility, said Fiona McFadden, an adviser to the Sesar executive director.
The pact will ensure both sides are “agreeing to a standard road map” that will “slowly bring everybody on the same track,” she said.
Besides technical hurdles, the FAA is confronting thorny economic and labor issues. U.S. airline executives have complained that significant benefits from investing in next-generation cockpit equipment won’t be available until later phases, when more planes and routes are covered.
But so far, U.S. carriers and their industry associations have failed to persuade Congress to help defray any of their projected costs, which could amount to $1.5 billion annually for the next few years. Congressional leaders have been leery of supporting legislation that critics could describe as a bailout for airlines.
Then there are the union problems. Mr. Krakowski has told the union that represents air-traffic controllers that the FAA has no immediate plans to reduce that part of its work force, even as it envisions phasing out certain ground-based radar facilities. But some industry and government officials believe such cutbacks are inevitable under later phases of NextGen.
Referring to the ultimate impact on controllers, Mr. Krakowski told an industry conference this summer that “their jobs will change and people will be displaced.”
Doug Church, a spokesman for the controllers union, late Thursday said: “We support NextGen and believe that more controllers, not less, will be needed to ensure the safety and efficiency of the future system and to handle the increased traffic volume.” The union, he said hasn’t seen any “evidence to suggest otherwise.”
By ANDY PASZTOR And DANIEL MICHAELS