Estonia‘s Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure, Kadri Simson, discusses the symbiosis between the modernisation of Estonia's air traffic infrastructure and SESAR's digitalisation agenda. In this interview, she highlights Estonia's prioritisation of the free movement of data and its aptitude in IT. She sees aviation as a business enabler for her country, and therefore underlines Estonia's commitment to cross-border cooperation, and accelerating the implementation of SESAR initiatives and technologies that enhance Europe‘s air traffic capacity.


Why is the digital agenda such an important priority for the Estonian's EU presidency?

As Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President for the Energy Union, stated in his speech at the Connecting Europe Conference in Tallinn on 21 September, there is an ongoing industrial revolution and one of the pillars of this revolution is digitalisation.

From our perspective technology is changing, fossil fuels are becoming obsolete, electric vehicles are gaining traction, and even self-driving cars are becoming a reality. Networked devices, globalisation and disappearing borders are the buzzwords of our age. And behind all these technological developments is data, enabling us to predict the future in novel ways that would have been unforeseeable a decade or two ago.

Estonia‘s Presidency is promoting the free movement of data as one of its priorities – currently we see that data that could be used for predictive analytics is stuck in silos. And we want to change that – whether it’s smart cities, self-driving vehicles or artificial intelligence. If we want to be winners and be at the forefront of contemporary technologies - for example as we do in aviation - we definitely need to use today’s advantages of the digital environment. But along with that we also have to consider its threats, especially when dealing with cyber security issues.

Estonia has a lot of experience across numerous aspects within this area. We are witnessing how the world is changing and we want to be there to share our knowledge. We even want to speed up this change in Europe.


Why in particular are digital advances in aviation so important for Europe and its citizens?

Aviation is a business enabler; its development is closely linked to GDP, and it‘s a barometer of how well we‘re doing. A healthy aviation sector also generates growth by connecting businesses and people. The European Union‘s Single European Sky (SES) initiative and the deployment of technologies developed by the SESAR Joint Undertaking over the last decade are helping to consolidate European airspace, update or supersede legacy systems, and improve air traffic capacity.

Simultaneously, aviation itself is evolving. The European Commission, for example, is formulating detailed rules for unmanned vehicles where one of the crucial aspects is the future use of airspace. Airspace is a finite resource that must be used more efficiently. However, one way of enhancing efficiency is via digitalisation and this is where we envisage opportunities for us. We believe there‘s a need for a more digitalised approach to coordinate all those entities that want to use airspace: In Estonia, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications has tasked the Air Navigation Services (EANS) to work out the operational prerequisites for integrating drones into Estonian airspace using solutions based on SESAR concepts.


How do you see SESAR supporting the digital agenda and greater connectivity in air travel across Europe?

SESAR has been working on different solutions for European and worldwide aviation and ATM systems for many years now. Estonia has taken part in this cooperation through our ATM service provider EANS. The rapid development of IT and related know-how has enabled us to modernise our ATM systems and software applications in order to update our working procedures. Recent changes resulting from digitalisation are effectively supporting our efforts towards adopting datalink services, implementing remote tower technology at Estonian regional airports, as well as other digital initiatives.

These new technology applications are becoming increasingly global and we should clearly acknowledge the importance of cross-border cooperation, particularly via the North European Functional Airspace Block (NEFAB) - one of nine functional airspace blocks in Europe set up in response to the EU‘s Single European Sky initiative - as well as the importance of the Borealis Alliance.


What are your hopes in terms of outcomes of the Digital Transport Days in Tallinn, in particular for aviation?

We do hope that we can draw more attention to those aforementioned topics to accelerate progress, especially around the potential of digitalisation. As Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc recently stated, every day in Europe we lose 70 people in traffic incidents and 350 get seriously injured. In transport we‘re creating 24% of the pollution and we spend endless hours in congested traffic.

This summer has also demonstrated that delays in air traffic are back. At the same time demand for travel and shipping only increases - our development and economy are dependent on that. Digitalisation is key to addressing these challenges. I hope Digital Transport Days in Tallinn will help make these issues more visible. We also hope that this and similar events will help spread the word and highlight the key messages - not only to our political leaders, but also to the potential stakeholders we need to enlist in order to reinforce this collaboration.