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Ayşe Akalın

Director General of EUROCONTROL Raúl Medina: " As a civil- military organisation we are uniquely positioned to bridge the interests of both civil and military users of Europe’s airspace."

Issue 18 - 2023
Director General of EUROCONTROL  Raúl Medina:

Ayşe Akalın: Can we start our interview by taking some personal information about you? Can you briefly introduce yourself to our readers? What can you tell us about your background, your career in the field of aviation?

Raúl Medina: I come from Spain – from Madrid – and I studied aeronautical engineering there before joining Siemens as a systems engineer. Later I moved to the Spanish Ministry of Transport – but always within the air transport sector. In 2015 I was appointed Director General of Civil Aviation, in which role I worked closely with EUROCONTROL, including acting as President of EUROCONTROL’s governing body, the Provisional Council.

I am extremely proud to have become Director General of EUROCONTROL – it is a remarkable organisation and it is extremely important for European aviation, especially now as it emerges from the impact of the pandemic and as it faces major challenges ahead, for example on capacity and on sustainability.

Ayşe Akalın: Can you elaborate on the importance and position of EUROCONTROL, a pan-European, civil-military organisation dedicated to supporting European aviation, in European and global aviation?

Raúl Medina: EUROCONTROL was founded over 60 years ago and has grown from its six original Member States to, at present forty-one (plus 2 Comprehensive Agreement States), covering almost all of Europe: from Ireland to Armenia, and from Finland to one of our Comprehensive Agreement States, Morocco. We are still growing – Iceland is set to become our next Member State at the beginning of 2025.

EUROCONTROL has many roles, including acting as the Network Manager, billing and collecting route charges, providing training from our Aviation Learning Centre in Luxembourg, and operating the Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre (MUAC, controlling the airspace above 24,500 feet over the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and part of Germany). A founding member of the SESAR Joint Undertaking (which is now located on our headquarters site), we also work on the future of ATM (air traffic management), from research to implementation, mostly through our EUROCONTROL Innovation Hub in France. 

While we work closely with the European Union in many areas, our geographic coverage is much wider. As a truly pan-European body, we act in the interests of all our members, including those not within the EU, such as Turkey. We also work closely with ECAC, for example at ICAO, where EUROCONTROL plays a vital role, contributing to the global regulation of ATM and ensuring that the interests of our Member States are represented. As a civil-military organisation we are uniquely positioned to bridge the interests of both civil and military users of Europe’s airspace, ensuring that the military’s mission can be carried out while minimising the impact on civil aviation. 

Ayşe Akalın: As Director General of EUROCONTROL, can you describe the main tasks associated with the role you hold?

Raúl Medina: A major element of my role is to set the strategic direction for the Agency. This was an immediate priority for me on taking up the role of Director General and we have now developed the strategy “Raising the Bar: Building EUROCONTROL 2030”. This focuses on taking European aviation to the next level, moving fully into the digital era, overcoming the challenge of efficiently managing traffic growth and taking a leading role in supporting the transition to green aviation. Technology, innovation, international engagement and people are the key drivers that will allow us to achieve our goals and keep delivering tangible added value to the aviation community.

Aviation Turkey: Can you elaborate on the post-pandemic situation of European and global aviation and on the challenges that aviation sector will face/experience in the coming period?

Raúl Medina: Demand for travel has recovered but it is still weaker than was forecast before the pandemic. In part, this is as a result of the economic effects of the pandemic – and also of the war in Ukraine. Last April, we forecast that by 2050 we would see 16 million flights per year in the pan-European Network, around 10 years later than was forecast before the pandemic. However, that forecast didn’t factor in the impact of the war in Ukraine, which is expected to delay traffic growth.

In any case, this level of growth (from 11 million flights in 2019) generates huge challenges. In 2019 we saw extensive capacity driven delays and our Air Traffic Management system at present would not be able to handle 16 million flights. We will need to change the way we do things – quite radically, with user trajectories shared and de-conflicted in real time. A lot of work is already happening to prepare for this change but much more is required if we are to be ready for the growth in demand.

At the same time, we will also have to handle new and different types of traffic, such as high-altitude craft, unmanned aircraft and also aircraft with new types of propulsion systems and different performance characteristics (for example, electric or hydrogen based propulsion). These will be vital as part of the response to another major challenge – that of achieving Net Zero by 2050.

Ayşe Akalın: Demand for air travel is rebounding after Covid-19, but there are disruptions, flight cancellations and delays, and chaos at airports across Europe.  How can this happen? Did the industry fail to forecast the right traffic recovery or fail to properly prepare?

Raúl Medina: During the pandemic it was clear that there was a great deal of demand for travel – just waiting until it became possible. However, even at the beginning of 2022, it was not clear exactly when this surge would occur as new variants (such as Omicron) were a very real concern, slowing the relaxation of travel restrictions. At the same time, every part of the aviation sector was starved of income and so there were very significant difficulties with ramping up capacity, whether that was in immigration, airports, baggage handling or airlines. Overall, we do not expect this summer to see the sort of issues encountered in 2022 – although it will still be a very challenging summer.

A particular concern for this summer is the risk of extensive flow management delays caused by a lack of capacity. We are anticipating traffic levels that will be close to 2019 levels and, in many places, significantly above 2019. Moreover, we are now operating with up to 20% of Europe’s airspace unavailable as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. EUROCONTROL, as the Network Manager, is working very closely with airlines, airports and air navigation service providers (ANSPs, such as DHMI) to prepare for this summer and to minimise the risk of delays and disruption. However, it will need everyone working together to meet this challenge – see All Together Now 2023. 

Ayşe Akalın: The Single European Sky (SES) has been on the books for 20 years but so far no progress has been made in moving the SES forward. Maybe it is time to scrap the SES and put forward a new project or approach?

Raúl Medina: Although many think of the SES as a single transformative change, the reality is that the move to a Single European Sky is an evolutionary process. We will not wake up one morning to find that the SES is suddenly there. Rather, it consists of many advances across the spectrum of ATM. For example, one aspect of implementing the SES is to move away from rigid route network management to trajectory-based operations where aircraft should be able to take the best possible route (as determined by the airlines themselves). This is the concept of Free Route Airspace and it is already happening. Most of Europe has FRA and we are rapidly moving ahead to make the FRA cross-border and 24/7.

Similarly, a great deal has been done behind the scenes on how we exchange data – a vital step of being ready for the idea I mentioned earlier of user-defined trajectories updated, shared and deconflicted in real time.

That said, I understand the frustration that more is not being done – and more quickly. EUROCONTROL is committed to helping make change more easy and more effective. The key for the success is collaboration between all the actors and working together towards the same goal. We need to think Network, and not focus only on local requirements. The collaborative approach is something we champion in EUROCONTROL. We have recently welcomed our colleagues from the SESAR Joint Undertaking (focusing on research and development) in our building, and also the SESAR Deployment Manager. This co-location, together with a dedicated liaison office from EASA (also on our site), will help in uniting us behind making the Single European Sky a reality.

Ayşe Akalın: How do you convince the states about the benefits of implementing the SES?

Raúl Medina: It is very clear that we will not be able to handle 16 million flights a year by 2050 without a major update of the ATM system in Europe. The programmes making up the SES are essential to achieving that update and we do not experience difficulties convincing states, or indeed other stakeholders, that change is required.

Aviation Turkey: How do you see the EUROCONTROL’s relations with Turkiye? What can you tell us about programs/projects that EUROCONTROL supports and cooperate with Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA/SHGM) and State Airports Administration (DHMI) in Turkiye?

Raúl Medina: We have extremely good relations with Türkiye and we work very closely both with SHGM and with DHMI. Over the past decade, Türkiye has become an ever more important part of the EUROCONTROL Network. In terms of aircraft movements, iGA Istanbul Airport is the busiest airport in the Network and Turkish Airlines is in the top three airlines. Türkiye is also a vital route for aircraft flying to and from Asia, especially since Russian airspace has been effectively closed for many carriers.

There is a specific agreement with SHGM on the support that EUROCONTROL provides to Türkiye, for example on the steps being taken to ensure that Turkish regulations are fully in accordance with international standards and to support future ATM development in Türkiye.

EUROCONTROL has played a major role in the last few years (especially leading up to the commissioning of iGA Istanbul Airport), with detailed simulations and other work on the airspace design around iGA Istanbul Airport and Ankara Esenboğa Airport, on the ground operations at both these airports and on the introduction of Free Route Airspace (FRA) in Türkiye. The FRA simulation was the largest ever conducted by EUROCONTROL, involving more than 400 DHMI controllers coming to our innovation and simulation centre near Paris. 

We have also been working closely with Turkish Airlines, Pegasus and SunExpress (as well as iGA Istanbul) on projects such as the early detection of diversions and the visualisation of reactionary delay. Many more projects are underway or in the pipeline: for example, a series of simulations at a number of airports as well as looking at the effect of adverse weather on airport capacity and on predicting taxi-in/out times at iGA Istanbul Airport. Türkiye is one of our most important partners and our intense and fruitful cooperation continues. 

I would also like to mention that we have a number of staff in our organisation coming from Türkiye – enriching our organisation’s expertise and providing value to the aviation sector across Europe.

Ayşe Akalın: Can you elaborate on the air traffic over Turkiye? How do you asses the density of Turkish airspace in terms of flight/air traffic? Compared to European countries, how is Turkiye in terms of air traffic density? Does Turkiye exceeded its 2019 traffic volumes during the 2022?

Raúl Medina: In 2022, traffic to, from and within Türkiye was at 93% of the 2019 level. Since the start of the year, this has increased and, for the first four months of 2023, it stood at 106% of the equivalent period in 2019, an average of 2,431 flights/day. If we include overflights, this figure rises to 3,608 flights/day, close to 2019 levels (+2%).

Rather than looking at air traffic density, we find that air traffic complexity is a more relevant measure. Aircraft maintaining a flight level and all heading in similar directions are less difficult to control that those that are climbing/descending or crossing. Here we see that a great deal of the traffic is heading west/east but that there are areas which are considerably more complex, notably near Istanbul, Ankara and, especially in the summer, Antalya.

Despite this, and even though traffic in Turkish airspace has increased rapidly over the last decade, en-route ATM delays have been very low relative to other major countries – in fact there were none at all for each of the years from 2019 to 2022.

Ayşe Akalın: Can you elaborate on the positive and negative impacts of the Russia-Ukraine War on commercial aviation in Europe?

Raúl Medina: There are no positive impacts of the war. My first official visit after becoming Director General was to our Member State Ukraine and it was heart-breaking to see some of the appalling destruction inflicted on Ukraine by Russia. EUROCONTROL stands strongly with our Member State; we are supporting our colleagues there with detailed planning of how aviation might recover once hostilities have ceased and with the training of relevant staff to help in this process.

Looking at the Network as a whole, we have up to 20% of our airspace unavailable, military activity outside Ukraine has tripled since the start of the war and many carriers have to take much longer routes to and from Asia, resulting in additional time, cost and also more emissions. The war has also had a significant economic impact, which also has a negative effect on aviation. 

Ayşe Akalın: Can you elaborate on your short and long-term objectives in the field of sustainability? How would you summarize EUROCONTROL’s ongoing sustainability efforts?

Raúl Medina: Policy makers and the European aviation industry have committed to reaching NetZero emissions by 2050. It is EUROCONTROL’s task to support European aviation in these efforts and sustainability is firmly established as one of our strategic priorities. I believe EUROCONTROL has a strong role to play in sharing its data and expertise and in coordinating action by various players in the sector. At the end of the day, we will need everyone on board to fundamentally transform aviation and reduce our environmental footprint. 

EUROCONTROL’s role has a number of elements. For example, we already provide technical and data support to States and relevant EU bodies for the design and implementation of environmental policy measures (such as the EU Emissions Trading System and ICAO’s CORSIA); we are also actively contributing to ICAO’s CAEP working groups. Accurate information is vital for decision-making on decarbonisation and climate adaptation and so we are developing a new platform of services, called FlyingGreen, to help all European aviation stakeholders. More widely, we work to inspire, inform and train a range of audiences about aviation sustainability challenges and decarbonisation pathways – based on reports and studies but using innovative communication channels, including podcasts – so tune in and follow our Raising the Aviation Bar (podbean.com).

Ayşe Akalın: At European level, what operational initiatives and policies do you consider most relevant to maximise aviation sustainability?

Raúl Medina: The key to making aviation more sustainable lies in close collaboration with aviation stakeholders. Being at the centre of European aviation we are closely involved in many different task forces and working groups dedicated to lowering the environmental impact of aviation operations. Our work ranges from our Flight Efficiency Task Force, which helps airspace users find the most efficient, sustainable routes, to a step by step guide to measure, reduce and report the carbon footprint of ANSPs. Another aspect is climate change adaption. We are co-leading, with ACI Europe, a European working group to provide recommendations on how to increase the resilience of our operations and infrastructure. We also have a suite of Environmental Impact Assessment tools (for noise, emissions…) supporting Member States in making informed decisions.

Together with ECAC Member States, we created a European SAF map to provide valuable information and to showcase European aviation industry efforts and contributions towards achieving long term climate ambitions in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement. These are just some examples of our work and every single one of them is important. Making aviation sustainable requires a significant transformation of the sector and this can only be achieved if it is tackled from all angles. In conclusion, it is a basket of measures that the community should take to reduce the impact on environment.

Ayşe Akalın: In your opinion, what can aviation actors, from airspace users to airports, policy-makers and EUROCONTROL, do to make aviation more sustainable faster?

Raúl Medina: It’s vital for everyone to look ahead and to invest in most sustainable technology and clean energy as early as possible, to accelerate the decarbonisation of our sector. Insist on collaborative decision-making with your partners and stakeholders and don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo!

Ayşe Akalın: What can you tell us about EUROCONTROL’s relations with the Non EU states?

Raúl Medina: EUROCONTROL is pan-European; it is made up of 41 Member States and two Comprehensive Agreement States (Israel and Morocco), with another non-EU State, Iceland, set to join in January 2025. The work of the EUROCONTROL Agency is, and must be, for the benefit of all of EUROCONTROL and not just those states in the EU. 

Part of that role is also to ensure the interests and specificities of our non-EU Member States, in terms of Air Traffic Management, are heard in interactions with the EU, seeking to make sure that EU policy-making reflects the needs of the whole of European Aviation and not just the EU states. Here we are aided by the fact that aviation is essentially an international activity. Advances in Air Traffic Management (such as the introduction of Free Route Airspace) will be much more effective and beneficial if the whole of Europe is involved. 

Similarly, at ICAO, the EU works closely with EUROCONTROL and ECAC so that a single European view is put forward – which is much more effective than each country acting on its own.

Ayşe Akalın: Can you elaborate on your activities in the fields of digitalisation, air navigation and artificial intelligence and your contributions and supports to the aviation in these fields?

Raúl Medina: Technology is a key driver for EUROCONTROL and we have embarked on a programme (iNM or Integrated Network Management) of replacing our core operational systems with innovative digital products. This ten-year programme will result in a new digital architecture that will harness the power of innovation and enable EUROCONTROL, in its role as Network Manager, to deliver ever more integrated business services and products to its stakeholders.

One very visible part of that is a new building for our Operations Centre. We will shift operations there in October this year and it will have the capability to support the iNM transformation of our systems.

Topics such as ATM, UAM/U-space High Altitude Operations, Artificial Intelligence and Sustainability are top priorities for EUROCONTROL and significant progress has already been made, even in areas such as AI, where more than 30 applications are currently in the research or fast track innovation pipeline. Several AI applications are already being used to support MUAC operations and the Network Manager tasks and functions.

Advances in all these areas are generally collaborative efforts, bringing together many aviation stakeholders, such as ANSPs, airports, airlines and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Despite their complexity, we are determined to speed up the process of research, development and implementation so that real tangible progress can be made.

Ayşe Akalın: Would you like to add anything in the way of a message for our readers?

Raúl Medina: I am strongly in favour of a collaborative, inclusive approach to address the challenges facing European aviation. Our sector depends on many partners working together, both in operations and also in developing new solutions for the future. EUROCONTROL is based on the concept of international cooperation and, over the last 60 years, it has grown to cover the whole of Europe. Türkiye was the 10th State to join – back in 1989. It has always been a valued member of EUROCONTROL and its aviation sector has grown rapidly in importance, especially over the last decade. 

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