Harmonising the skies

The inexorable growth of air travel is a defining aspect of modern times, with a huge influence on our personal, leisure and business lives. It has also led to a period of unprecedented change for the organisations providing these services, from airlines and airports to planners and air traffic controllers.

This continuing growth has opened up fresh debates over the environment, airport expansion, fuel prices and probably the most fiercely contested area – safety.

At the forefront of safety are the nation’s air traffic controllers, who make critical contributions to every air journey, but are largely unseen by the general public. Their real image is far more modern and professional than seen in the countless depictions on film, although in recent times the industry has endured some painful times to keep pace with the huge expansion in flights.

Legislation is now being put in place to ensure that the system can keep up with the huge growth in traffic, and some major developments are now taking place to help controllers deal with this.

More integration
Passenger numbers at London airports alone are expected to increase by around 40 million in the next decade, with the number of people coming through Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted growing from 121 million today to 162 million by 2014.

To help manage this growth, the authorities want to create more integration across Europe, and last year the EU implemented legislation to create a ‘single European sky’ in a move commentators described as the most fundamental change for 60 years.

The legislation was designed to sweep away barriers between individual nations and as a result increase productivity, improve safety, reduce delays and utilise air space more efficiently.

At the same time, the law makers hope to introduce a set of regulatory, safety and competency standards across Europe so that all air traffic controllers are on the same wavelength.

The rules were drafted to improve collaboration between controllers in different countries while airspace was also redrawn across national boundaries to help reduce the cost of taking an aircraft from one place to another.

The next big legal change for the sector is the implementation of a single licence for all air traffic controllers in Europe, which is expected to dramatically improve the current system across the continent.

The Council of Ministers and the European Parliament are currently thrashing out the final details of the new rules but this is expected to be completed in the next few months.

Safeguards on security
The rules from the EU will also place safeguards on security and safety as well as putting greater emphasis on training and communication, especially during an emergency.

The National Air Traffic Control Service (NATS) is the UK’s largest employer of controllers, with more than 2,000 employees based at its headquarters in Swanwick.

Steve Garner, head of leadership development at NATS is confident that it will be more evolution than revolution for British employers, because the licence will be largely based on standards already in place.

“In the UK we’ve tended to be at the forefront of training and development in this sector. The main difference for us in the long term will be around the mobility of labour between European countries. This has been one of the main reasons Europe has been looking at these changes,” he explains.

Because all controllers around Europe will be trained to the same set of standards and hold the same licence it should lead to an easier transition of controllers between European countries.

“Under the rules controllers from Europe can come to the UK with the new standardised licence, although we would still test them to ensure they are up to our operational standards.

“It’s a good thing for aviation employers generally because it will enable us to move workers around Europe to help meet the peaks and troughs of demand. It should help to eliminate any shortfalls within the market,” he says.

Concerns over job market
However, this new workforce fluidity has raised concerns that the jobs market could be flooded by controllers from some of the new EU countries and some trade unions fear this could push down wages and affect working conditions.

Garner believes the effect on the jobs market will be broadly neutral, but he admits concerns about social drift from Eastern Europe.

“The UK and European unions are concerned about this, but as employers it doesn’t really give us too much cause for concern unless it would mean falling standards – and the licence should prevent this,” he says.

David Luxton, national secretary of trade union Prospect is worried about the potential influx of controllers from Eastern Europe, but says it is difficult to tell how much of an impact this will have.

“It is likely that there would be an influx of controllers from Eastern Europe as pay and conditions in the UK are considerably higher. It is difficult to assess the extent of this trend, and it will of course be influenced by actual vacancies,” he says. Luxton is also concerned about the language requirements of the new system and feels it could put UK controllers at a disadvantage if they need to go overseas to find work.

Under the Directive all controllers around Europe will need to speak English to level 4 proficiency, although there will also be a requirement to speak a second ‘local language’ to a proficiency of level 5.

Luxton believes this could act as a barrier to the mobility of UK controllers and put them at a distinct disadvantage in the jobs market. “The main impact of the common licence will be greater mobility of air traffic control officers across European member states. The interpretation of local language requirement may prove to be a barrier to mobility for UK controllers, as language education in the UK is not consistently available or accessible, whereas in other EU states, English has become the de facto second language,” he says.

This becomes even more crucial because the ‘single sky’ legislation is expected to lead to a reduction in the overall number of control centres as the system becomes more efficient. The development of Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs) will eventually mean that airspace over one country could be directed by controllers in another country to reduce duplication and improve efficiency.

“The introduction of FABs will, over time, lead to a significant rationalisation of air traffic control centres. The chief executive of the German air navigation service provider, DFS, recently told us that he believes the 60 air traffic control centres across 38 European countries will be reduced to just 10 functional airspace blocks.

“This would have huge implications for jobs and enforced mobility arising from rationalisation,” he says.

Area of contention
Another area of contention is the educational requirements that will be demanded by the directive before candidates can start training for the licence. The unions and employers are both against the stipulation that candidates must have a degree to enter the workforce, although this is still being debated by MEPs.

Luxton argues that applicants should not need a degree to become controllers and that other traits such as concentration, organisational skills and the ability to react positively to pressure are more important.

He says many Prospect members believe the controllers who trained without a degree are just as good at the job as graduate entrants. However, he is confident the UK will win this particular argument.

“The UK government has accepted Prospect’s argument that there is no need to introduce a minimum educational qualification at degree level as this is not relevant to the attitude required to be an air traffic controller. The current minimum entry qualifications are two A-levels or equivalent.”

NATS is also opposed to degree-level entry and, although 70% of its controllers currently have a degree, Garner feels that to insist on it would be counter-productive.

“We would be against this because it would inhibit our ‘through the ranks’ process which helps motivate staff and is a big part of our culture. This issue hasn’t yet been resolved, but I think too many countries are against it for it to go through,” he says.

Training requirements have thrown up a number of challenges for the HR team at NATS, but most of these have already been addressed and Garner says the organisation made a range of changes at its dedicated college in Bournemouth.

“The structure of the courses had to be changed because the way we test for knowledge had to be done differently.

“Under the current system most of our controllers are recruited as trainees and then brought up the required standards. That also applies if we recruit overseas staff, who go through the process and are then given a UK licence,” he says.

Overall, Garner thinks the reforms will improve air travel across Europe and help the sector’s employers manage the workforce, maintain safety standards and improve efficiency.

“Our view is that this is a positive thing in principle, but we must make sure the details don’t over-complicate the good intentions. If it raises standards across the continent it will improve safety,” he says.

In an ever changing and rapidly expanding market he also feels it is the best way forward for both the controllers and the employers across Europe.

“Most British controllers think they are the best in Europe – and possibly the world – and, in my opinion, rightly so. However, in common with most other industries, the job for life system has gone, and hopefully this will help keep people in the industry.

“It will give more freedom to controllers to move around Europe. As an industry, we need to recruit and retain more people.”

Crowded skies



  • NATS handled a record 205,378 flights in May 2005
  • All 14 of the UK airports where NATS provides air traffic control services reported increases for May 2005
  • A total of 2,200,665 flights used UK airspace in 2004-2005.

Air Traffic Control Officer Licence Directive

The new single licence for controllers is expected to be finalised in the next few months, although employers will be given four years to come to terms with the rules. The directive should be fully implemented by 2010.

The licence will introduce:



  • common standards of competency, training and language proficiency
  • common certification for air traffic control training providers
  • a minimum and maximum age for controllers
  • minimum educational requirements
  • common medical standards.

The single European sky

The process of developing a single European sky is already well under way following legislation in April 2004. It is hoped that by developing standard, consistent frameworks for training, language, safety and security that European air travel will become simpler and more efficient.
By harmonising all the rules across Europe and bringing all the nations closer together, the flow of air traffic should become more integrated and the task of getting an aircraft from A to B should become far simpler.

The single licence for controllers is just one factor, and the way air space is handled is also evolving. Previous national strips of airspace are being reassigned into giant Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs) which could run over several European nations. This is expected to reduce the number of control centres and will eventually lead to air traffic in one country being controlled from a centre in another EU nation.


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