Pilatus PC-12
Pilatus PC-12

Is European Bizav Set to Soar?

Having recently returned from the Paris Air Show, I find the differences between France and the U.S. are fresh in my mind. The culture, architecture, cuisine, and, of course, the language in France are all “foreign” to the American psyche. As comedian Steve Martin once observed, “The French have a different word for…everything.”

Private aviation is also significantly different in France and throughout Europe, but in a subtler way. Flying from place to place on the Continent has remained constricted by the high cost of airport access, tightly regulated airspace, and competition from a robust rail system. So most of the infrastructure involving private aviation has focused on long-range jet travel, to and from North America, the Middle East, and the Asia-Pacific region.

That dynamic could be about to change thanks to two developments. First, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) recently eliminated its long-standing ban on for-pay flights by single-engine turbine aircraft at night and in instrument weather conditions. And second, the so-called Sesar initiative (for Single European Sky ATM [air traffic management] Research) is transforming all air navigation, enabling far more airspace options for route planning, and allowing smaller airports to launch and accept flights during inclement weather. This could increase opportunities for European business and leisure travelers to take smaller aircraft to smaller airports much closer to their final destinations.

It’s hard to understand why it has taken so long for EASA to lift its restriction on single-engine turbines. Mechanical failures in ­modern turboprops are rare. Long legal in North America, single-engine charter flying in all weather and at night has an exemplary safety record. As proponents of such flights like to say, “The engine doesn’t know it’s dark outside.”

Maybe it just took this long for European nations to get around to concurring on the issue. It could not have hurt that two of the world’s top producers of single-engine turbine aircraft are European—Switzerland’s Pilatus with its PC-12 and Daher in France with its TBM series. With their ability to use shorter runways—even grass strips—newly liberated single-engine turboprops now have the potential to bust open access to innumerable new small airports throughout Europe.

Sesar’s “open sky” initiative roughly parallels the U.S. NextGen effort, in that it consists of transitioning from much less precise ground-based navigation to satellite-based technology—the global positioning system (GPS). The first benefit of this is that it will enable much freer use of airspace than radar-based aircraft tracking permits. Before satellite navigation, airplanes flying in instrument weather conditions had to pass from one ground-based ­navigation beacon to the next. Navigation routes are known as airways, and the most-traveled funnel over a few specific waypoints. That ­creates a choke point when traffic gets heavy.

…newly liberated single-engine turboprops now have the potential to bust open access to innumerable new small airports throughout Europe.

The upcoming ADS-B system mandates that aircraft transmit their precise GPS position not only to air traffic control, but also to other aircraft, while flying in clouds and at night. So, flying will become far less of a game of “blind man’s bluff” where aircraft must be separated by much larger “bubbles” of space between both obstacles and other aircraft to remain safe. And with satellites, the air traffic system isn’t limited to specific points on the map, so there can be multiple “gateways” to crowded segments of airspace. For airlines, the change is expected to produce huge time and dollar savings while dramatically reducing carbon emissions.

But it’s the question of access to airspace and smaller airports that is more critical to small aircraft transportation, whether in a private jet or an owner-flown propeller plane. So freeing up more airspace will limit restrictions on the “little guys.”

Another big plus for satellite navigation is that it enables precision approaches to many more airports. The decades-old technology of the precision instrument landing system (ILS) requires substantial—and expensive—ground infrastructure for each runway to be served, and in some cases this is just not possible because of terrain obstructions. So ILS approaches were limited to relatively high-traffic airports. With much less expensive satellite-based approach procedures, an aircraft can now safely use almost any airport, even when the cloud cover is low enough that ILS “minimums” prevail—typically about a 200- to 300-foot ceiling.

This means that passengers might soon be able to book charter flights to thousands of smaller airports that previously served only fair-weather “hobby” pilots. That, in turn, could bring about the growth of other passenger services there, further stimulating private flying throughout the “Old World.”