Written by: Claire Davies
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Freedom to innovate?

Much has been achieved in the thirteen years of Single European Sky (SES) – as highlighted by the SES awards from 2016 and 2017 – but, ultimately forcing ANSPs and their partners to operate in an innovative way through regulation hasn't been a success. The recent European Court of Auditors (ECA) special report on SES recognised the development of a performance-oriented culture, but the "lacklustre quantitative results" shown by the SES performance scheme were below expectations. That same report justified EU regulatory intervention, via legal enforcement and financial incentives, to counter Europe's "natural monopolies and fragmentation".

The need for regulatory flexibility was stressed in the EC's Aviation Strategy for Europe (2015) to set the conditions for global competitiveness, by "abolishing rules and procedures that add time, burden and cost but do not contribute to safety as well as those that stifle innovation and entrepreneurship". Three years on, it's clear that balancing the regulatory framework to drive change whilst allowing freedom to stimulate innovation remains an ongoing challenge.

So how is SES innovating, and why hasn't it delivered? Technical modernisation and harmonisation of ATM systems; airspace architecture and management concepts; strengthening the design of the network and the Network Manager; and a shift to customer-driven service provision – these are all initiatives to innovate. A pre-requisite for success in these initiatives is collaboration between all ATM's stakeholders.

SES has promoted collaboration in SESAR, as well as FABs, common and cross-border services, flexible use of airspace, and network management. But ultimately, whilst cooperation has been positive, the FABs are illustrative that this has not been enough to address fragmentation. Furthermore, the political and sovereignty dimension has proved a barrier to change.

All of which brings us back to the question of regulation, and its impact on innovation. The ECA audit highlighted flaws in the SESAR regulatory framework which will need to be addressed. What else could be done to the regulatory framework to drive change? ANSPs themselves have called for more 'freedom to operate' to deliver performance objectives. They are already showing their ability to be flexible to airspace user needs and have formed flourishing industrial partnerships outside of the regulatory framework. Creating competition is also one mechanism that SES regulation already allows; this is increasingly being pursued and should be promoted.

Regulation can support innovation, if the right balance can be found between targets, incentives and freedoms. Following the UK's departure from the EU, political stagnation over SES2+ linked to Gibraltar will (theoretically) be unlocked. It could be the driver that is needed to readdress the regulatory framework and accelerate the transformation of a fragmented system into a harmonised, more cost efficient, and well performing European ATM network.

For more information, contact Claire Davies.

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