Near-disaster shows EU air traffic control is nowhere near good enough

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Apologies in advance for another depressing story about aviation. This one at least has a happy ending. Yet a near-miss at Bordeaux-Mérignac airport, outlined in a report by France’s aviation accidents bureau last month,  highlights the urgent need for modernisation of air traffic control systems.

On New Year’s Eve 2022, an air traffic controller at Bordeaux airport authorised an easyJet A320 aircraft carrying 179 passengers to land on runway 23. It had slipped his mind that he had already authorised a small, two passenger jet to approach the same runway. The leisure pilot, listening on the radio, reminded air traffic control of his presence. Luckily, easyJet pilots were able to abort the landing just 103ft from the tarmac, avoiding disaster. The pilot of the small aircraft, and his nine year old son, were shaken by the roar of the A320’s engines as it flew over their heads.

So that was the happy ending. Yet France’s Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses found that while some mistakes might be specific to Bordeaux airport, archaic technology, some of which is widely used across Europe, also played a role.

First, the conditions specific to Bordeaux: Controllers there had been working to an informal rota, which meant they had completed only about 60 per cent of their officially scheduled hours by the last day of 2022. Only three people were on duty at the time of the incident, when six were on the official rota. The backup controller, the reinforcement in case of emergency, did not even turn up for work. Worst of all, management knew about the practice, but ignored it to maintain “social peace”.

Even for militant French air traffic controllers this is shocking. 

But in dissecting the incident, the BEA investigators noted that Bordeaux and most French airports have no “reliable” means to identify which controllers have come into work, how long they stay or what functions they actually fulfil.

And like controllers across Europe, they still use slips of paper placed on a board to show where an aircraft is on a runway. The December 22 incident happened because one controller juggling four different jobs was so busy he forgot to place the slip on the board. 

The technology used in France is not unusually antiquated. For example, controllers across the bloc still communicate with pilots by voice radio, often not in their native languages, rather than giving instructions via a computer datalink to the aircraft.

“We have been in the process of implementing this for many years and it is still not complete,” one senior European aviation official told me. “That is an obvious safety enhancement that is not high tech.”

And ground technology such as surface radar, used to alert controllers to runway incursions and potential collisions, is still the exception.  Finally the air traffic management organisation Canso wants controllers worldwide to be allowed to use simulators much more for training, just as aircraft pilots do.

It is important to note that despite these flaws, flying is still far safer than driving a car. According to IATA, the global aviation trade body, on average a person would need to take a flight every day for 25,214 years to experience a fatal accident. Controllers are also highly trained to withstand the most stressful situations and they avert disasters daily.

But even if the existing system is safe, there is still a lot of margin for improvement, especially as the number of flights increases. 

The industry is understandably nervous of change when human lives are at stake. And then there is the difficulty of introducing change in a hugely complex ecosystem, where everyone needs to transition together for maximum safety — from airlines reluctant to pay more for navigation services, to governments and service providers unwilling to take on over-powerful unions.

But a major obstacle seems to be the absence of any incentive for change. “Some invest in new technologies and others don’t,” the aviation official said. “Those who don’t, suffer no consequences. There are no incentives to modernise.”

Europe has struggled for 20 years to implement the Single European Sky initiative which aims to overcome the fragmentation of its airspace, with all air navigation service providers managed at national level.

It has made some progress on innovation. However, there should be greater effort to harmonise and incentivise minimum standards for technology in air traffic management across the bloc. Safety should always be the priority. But that should not rule out change for the better.

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