Beyond the grey bulk of the Isle of Arran, 5,000 kilometres of Atlantic Ocean separate Britain from Northern America. Just a few hundred metres inland in Prestwick, Western Scotland, the Oceanic Area Control Centre (OACC) controls the airspace over the eastern half of the North Atlantic, from the Azores to a boundary with Iceland, getting airline passengers to and from Europe safely. It’s at the forefront of a revolution making flights in Europe shorter, greener and cheaper.
From behind a screen in quiet rooms, operators monitor one million aircraft movements per year. At peak times in the summer months this could involve as many as 3,500 a day and this number is set to increase drastically the coming years.
To accommodate this increase, the EU launched the Single European Sky initiative to make more efficient use of Europe’s skies. The current fragmentation costs €4 billion a year, led to 19.4 million minutes’ delay in 2012 and makes the average flight 49 kilometres longer than necessary. Enabling planes to take more direct routes will save on fuel, cut costs and ultimately reduce the price of tickets.
The project is also backed by the OACC. “We’re fully supportive of what the Single European Sky initiative is trying to do for the benefit of customers, trying to reduce costs, increasing safety and capacity,” said Alastair Muir, operations director at the Prestwick Centre.
The EU’s liberalisation of the aviation market significantly reduced the price of flights, changing it from a prerogative of the few to a possibility for everyone. This led to an increase in the number of flights and destinations, boosting cross-border commerce and tourism. Business leaders in Prestwick are well aware of their links to the rest of Europe. “We feel very much connected,” said Bill McIntosh, leader of South Ayrshire Council. “We are encouraging local businesses to export. We’re fortunate here that we have Prestwick Airport on our doorstep. Europe is very much on our minds on a daily basis and we are looking at ways of developing links.”
To protect people at the same time as boosting business, the European Union introduced passenger rights. When things go wrong while travelling, anything from your flight being cancelled to your luggage getting lost, you enjoy rights, that entitle you to compensation or alternative services.
And even when spectacular acts of nature such as the 2010 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano disrupt flight plans, Europe’s air traffic control authority Eurocontrol is there to co-ordinate flight safety and help keep passengers informed.