In anticipation of the forthcoming Digital Transport Days in Tallinn, Henrik Hololei, Director-General for Mobility and Transport at the European Commission, and Chair of the Administrative Board of the SESAR Joint Undertaking, considers the evolving complexities of European aviation - growth, capacity, safety, security and the environment. In this interview, he points to SESAR‘s ongoing initiatives and deployments as key to the digitalisation of the air traffic management infrastructure, which is so vital for the fulfilment of the EU‘s Aviation Strategy.

We need to take a holistic view of Europe‘s aviation sector and treat all the different parts of its value network equitably. There‘s a lot of interaction between airlines, airports, air navigation service providers, aircraft manufactures, and we have to handle them in such a way that they can benefit equally from the EU‘s aviation strategy.

Safety always comes first and we must ensure Europe maintains a world-leading aviation safety regulatory framework that is constantly modernised, and where EASA becomes an even stronger European entity. The highest level of safety is something that we always maintain at the centre of our activities.

Equally, regarding aviation security, anticipating vulnerabilities and taking preemptive measures against threats is paramount. Following the attacks of September 11th 2001, the entire air transport ecosystem operates under a state of heightened vigilance, and we need to ensure that we have a robust regulatory framework in place to address evolving dangers. Cyber and digitally-based attacks add two completely new dimensions to the security threat and we must focus a lot of thought and resource around mitigating potential risks.

Europe and the global aviation market

The global aviation market is changing constantly and growing rapidly, and it‘s also a highly competitive market. Latest industry data show that significant growth is taking place in South-East Asia, East Asia and the Middle-East. We want European aviation to be able to benefit from that growth, which is why we are proactively pursuing negotiations for Comprehensive Aviation Agreements. These will allow Europe‘s aviation industry to compete internationally, meaning both people and businesses can benefit from more options and new routes with affordable prices.

Rapid growth in aviation is also placing extra stress on existing infrastructure, both in the air (ATM) and on the ground (airports). We need to tackle this challenge in order to avoid capacity crunches in the foreseeable future, which means encouraging and supporting further investment in modernising that infrastructure. For aviation to grow, it needs a license to grow. Specifically, it must become more sustainable and significantly curb CO2 emissions. The deal reached in ICAO last year on CORSIA needs to be deployed - it‘s a high priority for Europe and European aviation.

EU aviation strategy and the digital agenda

This ongoing modernisation process must be carefully planned and managed and we need to reduce the impact on the environment, preserve employment, and maintain high quality jobs. Our Single European Sky (SES) policy has been pursuing these goals for quite some time now, and will continue to do so until they are fully achieved. This all leads to the digitalisation of aviation. This is a challenge, but equally an opportunity. Drones and digital solutions will transform aviation forever, and we need to be ready to drive change and address challenges by ensuring our regulatory framework takes into account the new environment in order to support growth and accommodate future trends.

Different elements of the Aviation Strategy tackle different aspects, which makes them inevitably interlinked. However, it is clear that a digitalised, modern, harmonised and efficient ATM system, with a global outreach, is instrumental for the success of the EU‘s aviation strategy.

Modernisation is synonymous with digitalisation, in particular for a highly technology-dependant and service provision oriented sector such as ATM. Only by digitalising the sector can we achieve important results such as improving efficiency in the air, expanding airport capacity, increasing connectivity, and reducing CO2 emissions. Moreover, the digitalisation of air transport services will improve mobility, upgrade passenger experience and reduce costs.

SESAR‘s role in supporting EU strategy and digitalisation

SESAR has a decisive role to play as the technological pillar of the SES, it is naturally also its digital pillar. Today, access to airspace and management of air traffic still rely on technologies and processes that were developed over 60 years ago. SESAR projects will help us move towards a future with a highly efficient ATM system, in particular in terms of greater capacity and flight efficiency. SESAR also plays a major role in identifying, developing and deploying the elements of the new digital ATM system, which has become a point of reference for our work in this field. In addition to that, it is also an important tool in our ambitious external aviation policy. We are a world leader in modernising the ATM sector and our solutions are sought after worldwide. It is a platform to promote European technology and solutions and to promote digitalisation.

Delivering affordable and greener aviation for Europe‘s citizens

The spectacular increase in air passenger numbers, from around 350 million passengers in 1992 to 1 billion today - with a huge increase of flights and routes over the past 25 years, and drastic ticket price reductions without compromising safety - all show just how extensive the success of the aviation market in Europe has been. This success would have not been possible without the constant improvement of ATM infrastructure that supports this increase in air traffic. To that end, I am convinced that the deployment of SESAR solutions is key to a modernised ATM infrastructure and to supporting the development of the aviation market.

At the same time, I‘m regularly witnessing how the SESAR project contributes to building partnerships between the industry and all ATM stakeholders, making active engagement an important tool for the development of new modernised ATM solutions that bring efficiencies and new opportunities. SESAR has been, and continues to be, a huge success. It is important that we now concentrate fully on deployment and make the solution applicable in Europe and beyond.

Digital Transport Days in Tallinn - expectations for aviation

The Digital Transport Days will be a very important event, enabling us to discuss, analyse and possibly provide concrete ideas regarding how to tackle the challenges ahead for the digitalisation of transport across modes. It is the first time that such an event has taken place and it is in fact long overdue.

Aviation is at the forefront of digitalisation, embracing many opportunities: ATM solutions, drones, big data, artificial intelligence and the challenges they bring are all good examples of what is driving change, and potentially disruption, to the aviation sector.

Our discussions during the Digital Transport Days will position all of that within the wider perspective of the digitalisation of the transport sector and of our societies more generally. It will help people better understand the synergies between different sectors of transport, and obtain information about what solutions are present throughout the sector. I am confident it will be an interesting and thought-provoking event for all of us.


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Read the EU Aviation Strategy

Find out more about the Digital Transport Days