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Baltic Functional Airspace Block: Results of Seven Years and Plans for the Future

Established in 2012, the Baltic Functional Airspace Block (Baltic FAB) today is considered one of the most advanced airspace management projects in the European Union. The Lithuanian and Polish Air Navigation Service Providers are implementing the project aimed at increasing cost-effectiveness and improving the efficiency in air traffic management. As estimated by the Baltic FAB feasibility study, joint development of FAB projects and cooperation with Poland in air traffic management will allow reducing the costs by 130 million euros.

European FABs in pursuit of ATM efficiency  
Due to the specificity of air navigation services, the Lithuanian and Poland's air traffic management (ATM) system is an integral part of the world and the European ATM system. To lead the international aviation and set an example of its sustainable development, the European Union has initiated a reform in the European ATM architecture which would allow restructuring of the European airspace, creating additional capacity and increasing the overall ATM efficiency.
Like in any other industry, in the air traffic management the efficiency gains can be achieved by extending the scale of activity. From the European Union point of view, the air traffic management as an industrial sector has to improve its functionality at the regional level, therefore, the airspace has to be enlarged and organized into functional airspace blocks.
According to the European Commission, states should cooperate closely in seeking for uniformity in equipment, operating procedures and air traffic management, to the highest extent possible.  
Establishment of functional airspace blocks is a continuous process of defragmentation in which providers of services are gradually seeking for operational optimization. To this end, nine European functional airspace blocks were established in 2012. Of these, five functional airspace blocks consist of two states, e.g., Danube FAB (Romania and Bulgaria), or UK-IRL FAB (the British–Irish block), four functional airspace blocks include four or more states, e.g., Blue Med  (Italy, Malta, Greece, Cyprus). Since 2012, when Lithuania and Poland set up the Baltic FAB, both states’ Ministries of Defence, Ministries of Transport, Civil Aviation Administrations, and Air Navigation Service Providers (Oro navigacija and PANSA) have been involved in this project.

Uniformity in ATM systems
A major achievement of the Baltic FAB is reaching uniformity in the Lithuanian and Polish ATM systems: both partners’ equipment, operating procedures and airspace management. Oro navigacija and PANSA have jointly carried out the public procurement and now are completing implementation of the common ATM system iTEC, comprised of ATC system, ATC simulator and Testing Platform, which will also function as the backup ATC system in the event of failure of the primary ATC system. This would allow Lithuania’s air traffic controllers to provide ATC services in part of the Polish airspace, and vice versa.
“Alongside with the existing common rules for airspace, every state has its own procedures for aircraft operations.  Therefore, even when crossing a small part of the Lithuanian airspace, pilots have to establish communication with air traffic controllers and comply with the requirements prescribed by the country they are overflying. The merger of Lithuania and Poland into a single functional airspace block has increased the area in which common procedures are intended to be applicable.  Shortly speaking, this will facilitate pilots’ work”, says Vidmantas Kairys, BALTIC FAB Director Management Office.
Enhanced interoperability between air traffic control centres and optimization of air routes will bring benefit to airlines. The communication between pilot and air traffic controller will improve, air routes in the airspace of the BFAB will become more direct which will result in reduced fuel costs and environmental impact and also in airlines’ cost saving. 

A more powerful voice at international level
According to Vidmantas Kairys, Lithuania’s membership in the Baltic FAB has made the enterprise’s voice heard in international negotiations and has increased its influence in decision making at international level. Belonging to the block has definitely contributed to the results achieved. In close cooperation with the neighbouring Poland, strategic decisions were taken to join the next-generation ATM system development alliance Interoperability Through European Collaboration, iTEC. It means that Lithuania has become the future system designer.     
In addition to the Lithuanian and Polish air navigation service providers, iTEC Alliance comprises air navigation service providers of Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Norway, and Spain as well as the Spanish manufacturer of aeronautical equipment Indra. Members of the alliance aim to jointly develop the ATC systems, provide their full interoperability and create added value through their uniformity. This is expected to increase the airspace capacity, punctuality of flights, ensure the efficiency of ATM system and compliance with the stricter environmental requirements.
The Baltic FAB has been actively involved in other international projects. It has succeeded in initiating and formalizing the joint activity B4 Consortium which, in addition to the Lithuanian and Polish air navigation service providers, also includes the Czech and Slovak air navigation service providers. As a member of the consortium, Oro navigacija may jointly participate in the SESAR (Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research) Programme’s projects on testing and implementation of innovative technological and operational ATM system solutions.
Oro navigacija and PANSA are also taking part in the regional initiative Gate One aimed at representing the interests of Central European air navigation service providers in the EU. This enables them to develop a common position on draft legislation, influence decisions of international organisations and enhance the overall efficiency of functional airspace blocks.

Cooperation in rescue operations and cost saving
“Both states benefit from common operational principles: they can exchange in each other’s experience, share best practice and jointly solve problems”, while commenting on the benefits of the Baltic FAB says V. Kairys. “Effective resolution of emerging problems is especially significant to further enhancement of airspace safety”.    
According to the specialist, a new bilateral agreement between Oro navigacija and PANSA, signed last year, established cooperation of both parties in search and rescue. The agreement should facilitate cooperation between the two parties in the event of contingency and, where necessary, carrying out joint search and rescue operations in Lithuania and Poland. The parties to the agreement also plan to cooperate in joint training, exercises and exchange of experience.  
Currently, Lithuania and Poland are working on the common strategy for the communications, navigation and surveillance (CNS) which will allow the Baltic FAB Air Navigation Service Providers to reduce the costs of CNS services due to more efficient use of resources and improved data communication.  Exchange in radar surveillance data will improve the level of safety and interoperability of systems; it will also increase airspace capacity, i.e. will allow providing services to a greater number of aircraft. At the FAB level, the rationale of planning modernization or construction of new CNS equipment is that the closer and more common the systems are, the easier and cheaper it will be to connect them and exchange the data.

Sharing experience with the neighbours
In recent years, both members of the Baltic FAB have also focused on joint projects with Belarus and Ukraine, to contribute actively to the aviation sector development.  
In the autumn of 2017, the Lithuanian, Polish and Ukrainian Air Navigation Service Providers agreed to work together on the development of the air route network and the infrastructure of air traffic control. In accordance with the signed Memorandum of Cooperation it has been agreed to cooperate closely in sharing best practice in the air traffic management, air navigation service provision, safety and quality assurance, cyber-security and other domains.
Last year in August, the Baltic FAB signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with Belaeronavigatsia, the Belarusian Air Navigation Service Provider. The parties agreed to cooperate in the development of the air route network and the infrastructure of air traffic control, sharing best practice in the air traffic management, air navigation services, cyber-security, training, etc.