When you run a Google search for the word ‘strike’, you get 201 million results. You get fewer results when you google ‘recipe’ or ‘Mandela’. Strikes seem to have become more commonplace as of late, and no matter what business you are in, strikes are a very costly affair for employers.
In the case of air traffic controllers, the cost doesn’t just land on the employers, but also affects airlines, (other) airports and even passengers. Last month’s strike by air traffic controllers (ATCs) in France sparked a demand from Ryanair to the European Commission for a ban on all ATC strikes. The low-cost carrier cited the economic burden on various parties as its main reason. Ryanair proposed that if a member nation’s ATC organization decides to go on strike – thereby limiting control of the upper airspace – control of said airspace should be taken over by neighboring countries.
Is remote air traffic control possible?
The simple answer to this is: ‘yes’. Considering all technological developments, remote air traffic control is feasible. In using a remote control center, radars and cameras, technically you should be able to control another country’s airspace.
The more expansive answer to this is: ‘yes, but…’. The truth is air traffic management is a complicated business and taking over another nation’s airspace will have many legalities involved. You would also need to take a look at the training levels of your controllers – would a foreign controller have local insight into the details of another nation’s airspace?
Quick facts on European air traffic controllers
Let’s take a quick look into the day to day activities of our eyes in the sky:
- On average, ATCs handle about 26,000 flights over Europe every day
- Forecasts indicate air traffic levels are likely to double in the next five years
- Today, a single controller needs to keep an eye on up to 40 planes an hour
- Monitoring 40 planes an hour requires controllers to team up and work in pairs: One to strategize the flight plan of an aircraft, and the other to communicate this information
Air traffic controllers shoulder a fair amount of responsibility in ensuring safe air travel for all of us regular Joes, which is why this is a heavily regulated industry. Air traffic control planning has become increasingly complex – there is a need for employees to cope well with the abovementioned work demands, while ensuring alignment with workforce agreements, fluctuating traffic volumes and increasing regulation.
The concept of a Single European Sky
Ryanair’s suggestion actually isn’t as off base as one might think. The European Commission is currently looking into (and passing legislation on) the Single European Sky (SES). The purpose of the SES is to create a unified European upper airspace, structuring airspace and air navigation services at a pan-European level. This initiative intends not only to increase cooperation, but also reduce delays, improve safety standards and flight efficiency, and encourage cost-savings related to service provisions.
According to research done over the previous years by Eurocontrol:
- The US controls 10.4 million km2 of airspace with one air navigation service provider (ANSP) and 20 en-route centers
- Europe controls 11.5 million km2 of airspace with 37 civil ANSPs and 63 en-route centers
- US ATM costs 34% less than in the EU
The SES suggests stepping away from traditional European airspace management methods (which are dominated by national boundaries) and basically merging various nations into functional airspace blocks (FABs). These FABs will be designed to maximize the utilization of airspace.
The impact on European Nations’ Air Traffic Control
Work on the SES and FABs initiatives has spanned over a decade. Legislation is being passed slowly but surely and the first few FABs have been set up, with close international cooperation.
But what would be the effect of ad-hoc “disruption” of schedules, such as the fallout of a strike? Would your ATC organization be ready to take on the extra responsibility of neighboring countries?
Let us know in your comment below or drop us a tweet @Quintiq.