European ATM – a sea of connections with shifting influences

Written by: Ivan Baruta
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Air Traffic Management (ATM) is organised differently from one region to another, because of geographical differences but also the level of maturity of Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) and regulators, and the level of demand for the service. Europe has been an active region in terms of initiatives aimed at establishing harmonised, centralised and shared ATM services. This has been driven by the Single European Sky legislation but also increasingly of late by a shared operational vision. Today, when we draw a network map of European ATM, we are faced with a sea of connections, including a large number of supranational organisations and alliances, shown in orange below, which in large represent a direct response to Europe's political development in the last 70 years towards unity and cooperation.

Network map of the main European ATM stakeholders, adapted from Laverde-Mazabel (2015)

Although some of these supranational organisations, such as the regulatory-led FAB initiatives, have been criticised for not achieving their objectives, where they undoubtedly succeeded was in bringing ANSPs together to share information and views and cooperate more closely, acting as a framework for the subsequent industrial multinational partnerships among ANSPs that have been gaining traction lately. So, whilst the regulatory-led initiatives remain important in terms of organising European airspace, the more industrially-driven approach that is emerging may eventually take over the leading role in shaping the future of European ATM.

Research shows that industry collaboration often acts as a source of change in institutional fields. We see this already with some industrial stakeholder groups in the European ATM landscape, such as A6 Alliance, Borealis or NORACON, which operate outside the national and regional legislation to achieve defined common goals with collective benefits for their members. While FABs have been led by States and policy makers, the advantage of industrial partnerships is that they have been created naturally upon a need to solve common issues. As a result, European ATM stakeholders are starting to support the concept of developing industrial rather than political partnerships, building on the existing ones that are already demonstrating benefits beyond the FAB boundaries.

However, ANSPs have historically been lacking some of the typical incentives for establishing alliances that are present, for instance, in the competitive airlines business. As mostly public entities, ANSPs have not been threatened by the uncertainties that acted as catalysts to drive competing airlines into strategic alliances in the past.

While competition is still largely not an issue for many ANSPs, other benefits of strategic multinational alliances are becoming very relevant to the ATM industry. ANSPs are increasingly commercialised and face growing pressures from both regulators and airspace users to deliver the same services at lower cost, provide increased capacity, and improve resilience of service. This is where ANSP alliances can offer benefits, by enabling operational synergies to save costs and harmonise technology.

International government organisations still have significant influence, but their roles have been moving towards assuring standardisation, and providing stability and dependability on the market.

Indeed, the European Commission would like the industry to devise their own solutions. This approach has recently gained comprehensive support among European ANSPs. It seems that, out of everyone in the 'sea' of European ATM, it is the multinational industrial partnerships, which have the greatest potential today to bring about change.

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