Flying Into the 21st Century

When two aircraft collided in German airspace on July 1, 2002, it became clear to European decision-makers that aviation on the continent was in a state of decline. Seventy-one people were killed when a Russian Tupolev 154 passenger plane belonging to Bashkirian Airlines and a Boeing 757 DHL cargo plane collided. The weather was good, the two aircraft were in proper operating condition and the pilots were skilled professionals; however, the European air traffic control and monitoring system was the Achilles' heel.

Although the planes were in German airspace, the crews received their instructions from Swiss air traffic controllers. The air-traffic controller in Zurich, Peter Nielsen, was operating two air-traffic control stations simultaneously. He did not notice that the two planes were on a collision course at 35,000 feet. When he realized the danger, one minute before the anticipated collision, he gave the pilots instructions contrary to what they were receiving from the automatic anti-collision systems in their respective aircraft. The Tupolev pilots followed his instructions and decreased altitude, while the Boeing pilots followed their automatic system's instructions and also decreased altitude. As a result, the two planes collided.

A commission of inquiry blamed malfunctions in the air-traffic control system. This was not surprising. Europe's skies are becoming increasingly crowded. In 1998, there were 16 million flights over the European continent - more than 40,000 a day - and that figure is expected to double by 2020.

Nevertheless, Europe's air-traffic control system is stuck with antiquated technology, its organizational structure does not permit efficient management of air traffic, and the system makes life hard on air traffic controllers and other personnel in the control towers. Although he was not blamed for the accident, Nielsen paid a heavy price: A Russian engineer whose family perished in the collision fatally stabbed him in February 2004.

A passenger plane is still a very safe means of transportation: A passenger's chances of bying in an air crash are about one in a million. Nevertheless, fearing that things could worsen, dozens of committees have been set up around the world to study methods of coping with the crowded skies. At a recent international conference in London, organized by the Royal Aeronautical Society, expert committees offered their recommendations. Chief among them was that European skies must be turned into one unit - one Single Sky.

The most appropriate epithet for Europe's regional air-traffic control system is "inefficient" - organizationally and technologically. The 34 national air-traffic control centers in Europe are divided into no less than 400 local air-traffic control regions. This means a plane flying over Germany will come under the watchful eyes of several air-traffic controllers. All these divisions hamper coordination, cause delays and force pilots to use unnecessarily long flight paths. Furthermore, the system's inefficiency costs the airline companies some 3.3 billion euros yearly. In addition, the air-traffic control systems use an antiquated technological infrastructure that dates from between the 1950s and the 1970s. Aircraft with cutting-edge systems are being directed by controllers using "ancient" technology. European air-traffic control systems do not even use many sattelite-navegation and telecommunications innovations, and planes are forced to fly in rigid routes that leave relatively wide margins between each aircraft. The result: Wasted time and fuel.

If the European Union were to adopt the Single Sky concept and the continent became a single air-traffic control region, that would solve both the organizational and the technological problems. The number of national air-traffic control systems would decrease, and air traffic would become much more efficient. The new air-traffic control system, outfitted with the latest equipment, would enable planes to travel in all weather conditions, closer to other aircraft, along shorter flight paths and without speed limitations. Improved coordination would also prevent the familiar and exhausting wait before takeoffs and landings. Furthermore, it would make better use of what computers have to offer. Decision-making is currently a mostly manual process, and the air-traffic controller's workload is very heavy. When Europe becomes a single unit, it can finally use existing technology and shift to an almost totally automatic air-traffic control system. The number of air accidents would be slashed by 500 percent because the effect of human error would be greatly reduced, according to a paper presented at the conference.

The Royal Aeronautical Society, which organized the conference, was founded in 1866 - 37 years before the Wright Brothers' first flight - and has a long, distinguished tradition. When it was created, its founders set ambitious goals to maintain high professional standards. It is now an international society, with 63 branches internationally that provide professional assistance and know-how to all for all aviation specialists.

Perhaps because of this tradition, the researchers at the conference did not limit themselves to the issue of air safety, and also addressed how passengers are handled in appallingly crowded airports, and the environmental ramifications of ever-increasing air traffic. One particularly fascinating paper at the London conference, entitled "European Aeronautics: A Vision for 2020," offered an entire list of goals.

Anyone who has recently flown has been exposed to the nerve-wracking lines to check in and to pass through security. Despite automatic ticketing technologies, passengers and baggage are really handled no differently than they were 40 years ago. One classic illustration of the dismal situation is London's Heathrow Airport. London Mayor Ken Livingstone has accused Heathrow of keeping people "as prisoners" in its "ghastly shopping mall." The airport has become the champion of delayed departures. Nearly a third of its flights to European destinations leave late. Although the airport was originally designed to serve 45 million passengers annually, 67 million people pass through each year. The line-ups for security checks became intolerable after August 2006, when a terrorist plan targeting planes flying from Britain to the United States was uncovered. Similar situations can be found at most of Europe's major airports.

According to the "Vision," the preciseness of departure times could be dramatically improved, and 99 percent of all flights could take off and land within 15 minutes of schedule. Moreover, passengers would not have to wait more than 15 minutes in the airport before takeoff or after landing for short flights, while the wait for long-distance flights would be no more than 30 minutes. This is certainly a refreshing vision if we consider that today, passengers arrive at the airport three hours before their flight. Under the vision, passengers will enjoy a large variety of facilities and services in the airport and on planes: Seats will be more widely spaced, and advanced telecommunication services will be available on the ground.

The paper does not neglect the issue of the environment. The planes of the future will be 50 percent quieter than today's aircraft. Furthermore, a 50-percent reduction of fuel consumption will reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 50 percent and nitrogen oxide emissions by 80 percent.

The projections regarding tomorrow's fleet of planes present challenges for aircraft manufacturers, who will be expected to construct giant planes that can carry 1,200 passengers, the size of a small village. They also will be expected to start producing supersonic airliners again - which were discontinued when the Concordes stopped flying - and to introduce passenger planes capable of vertical takeoffs and landings, which will considerably reduce the need for long flight paths. Another item in the "Vision": Airships for cargo transport.

As things currently look, Europe is meeting the challenge and is taking the necessary measures to avoid a further deterioration. Europe's air-traffic control system currently costs seven billion euros a year to operate, and improvements will bring this to 18 billion euros by 2020. In order to turn the "2020 Vision" into a reality - if it is, in fact, adopted by the EU - European governments, airlines, manufacturers and other players will need to invest 100 billion euros.

Israel can learn a lot from Europe in terms of improving equipment and procedures. Experts from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Aviation Authority visited Israel to study the situation here, and their findings are very likely to be bleak. Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz already has declared that budgetary limitations will not prevent the correction of malfunctions. These experts were joined by a committee headed by former Israel Air Force commander Major-General (ret.) Amos Lapidot. His committee conducted an in-depth probe of Israel's skies after several near-accidents.

It can only be hoped that Israel, like Europe, will also receive a "Vision for Civil Aviation in Israel for 2020," and that the necessary resources will be allocated for upgrading Israel's air traffic control and monitoring system, as Mofaz has promised