The conference at a glance

Industry leaders gathered alongside EU policy makers to discuss the aviation sector’s digitalisation efforts at the first annual conference of the SESAR 3 Joint Undertaking.

The SESAR 3 JU conference, held in Brussels, featured panel discussions on the digitalisation of Europe's aviation sector – alongside the Digital European Sky Marketplace showcasing some of the latest SESAR innovations. The urgency to address climate change was a running theme throughout the day.

“Citizens want mobility, and for that we need aviation… but people also want to fly in a green spirit, so they want to limit their impact on the environment,” said Andreas Boschen, Executive Director at SESAR 3 JU. “I think we are on track [delivering solutions], but external disruptions will make it more challenging.”

EU policy makers echoed the ongoing challenges facing the industry, while underscoring the supporting role of the SESAR 3 JU. The last few years have been unprecedented, according to Henrik Hololei, Director General at the European Commission’s Mobility and Transport Directorate-General, with no signs of the crisis easing yet.

He said that air traffic management (ATM) will face greater pressure to deliver environmental benefits even while demand for air travel continues to grow. “Our airspace should be able to accommodate that without bottlenecks,” he said. ”The SESAR project has been a success, but the challenges facing our sector require continuous reflection and the lightness of new beginnings,” he added.

The pressure is on to deliver the Digital European Sky and meet EU's green ambitions. For this we need an interoperable, digital, future-proofed ATM system, said MEP Marian-Jean Marinescu. The Single European Sky (SES) reform package can provide an enabling framework, he added, who called for its swift adoption.

‘Building back better’ was the leitmotif in the first morning session, where panellists discussed the aviation industry’s efforts to recover after successive crises, while tackling the sector’s carbon footprint. “Industry is really making a big effort to recover and ‘recover better’,” said Mariagrazia La Piscopia, Executive Director at SESAR Deployment Manager. To get there, we have to champion first-mover advantage, encouraging a network perspective of the system and investments plan, she added.

The summer disruptions clearly show the need for modernisation but there are signs of hope with the progressive implementation of technology, noted Philippe Merlo, Director of the European Green Sky Directorate, EUROCONTROL. Partnership and a cohesive value chain will be key, he added.

A lot has been achieved in terms of innovation in support of smart mobility. We need to accelerate our efforts in preparation for the next generation of mobility and ensure solutions are smart and sustainable by design, Carlos Morais Pires, cabinet member of research commissioner Mariya Gabriel, told conference participants. Coordination is a pre-condition to making a difference; this is rationale of Joint Undertakings which embed co-creation and a critical mass of investments, he added.

Digitalisation of the aviation ecosystem was discussed in a second morning panel, where speakers stressed the opportunity to boost ATM’s performance and unlock the potential to reduce the sector’s CO2 emissions.

We have a vision but we need the building blocks: air-ground connectivity, infrastructure backbone, cyber security - when they are in place we can harvest the benefits, said Ulf Thibblin, Chair of COOPANS Alliance CTO Panel.

Air traffic controllers are enablers for getting solutions deployed quicker into a workable future operational environment. We should ensure their involvement at all stages of innovation and implementation. This was the key message from Marc Baumgartner representing the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Associations (IFATCA).

”We need to accelerate, we still have 10% of wasted CO2 each day in the European airspace [and] there is an extremely strong need to move now [with the Digital European Sky],” said Hugues de Beco, Head of Multi-Programme Projects and Air Traffic Management at Airbus.

Industry players reiterated the added-value of the SESAR 3 JU. If we only manage to achieve the SESAR flagship programmes for a digital sky that would already “be magic”, according to Dirk Hoke, Chief Executive Officer at Volocopter – a new member of the SESAR 3 JU, but which has been active in recent years in several large-scale demonstrations. If we can implement and accelerate these projects, he added, “My wish-list is covered!”

A standards and regulatory framework conducive to digital transformation was explored by speakers in the final panel discussion. There was common agreement for the need to embed standards and regulatory work much earlier within the innovation lifecycle, something which the SESAR 3 JU will seek to do.

In parallel, it's about streamlining. When we introduce new technologies into ATM, we must withdraw obsolete, redundant technology in order to avoid unnecessary costs, said Christine Berg, Deputy Aviation Director, Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport, European Commission.

A closing panel reflected the day’s discussions, summarising some of the key takeaways,

Constant disruptions and other pressures related to climate change and the energy crisis mean that we need to do more to make sure that the [ATM] framework is more resilient and flexible, more adaptable to all of these uncertainties, said Rachel Smit, a member of Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean’s cabinet.

We have the means to be the front runner in green innovation technology, if we put sustainability at the heart of our modernisations efforts, said MEP Karima Delli, chair of the European Parliament’s transport committee. However, the global competition is tough, so we need to ensure continuous investments and incentives and avoid brain  drain if we want continue to lead the way, she concluded. 

Throughout the day SESAR 3 JU projects and members pitched their innovations onstage as well as through a dedicated Digital European Sky Marketplace exhibition.

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SESAR 3 JU Annual Conference 2022