The National Air Traffic Services (NATS) operations centre at Swanwick looks set for another IT shake-up, after European transport ministers demanded better integration and standardisation across the 64 air traffic control centres in Europe.
The European Union wants to introduce a co-ordinated system of air traffic management by the end of 2004.
A European Council meeting of transport ministers last week agreed to a package of proposals, including an agreed platform for new technologies to introduce the 'Single European Sky'.
Removing national control will allow aircraft to fly in straight lines and cause less pollution, and is intended to improve safety and reduce delays.
"With the agreement achieved today, the European sky will no longer be a patchwork of different systems," said Loyola de Palacio, European Commission vice president in charge of Transport and Energy, who has been leading the reforms.
The proposals will now go to the European Parliament for a second reading.
Eurocontrol, the European air safety organisation, will work with the European Commission to define the systems and architectural guidelines for the technology platforms.
The NATS has promised to ensure that its systems at Swanwick, which were criticised as "already obsolete" when it opened in January, are fully compatible.
But a facility opened this November by Eurocontrol may provide the benchmark for other authorities to match.
Based in Maastricht, and handling air traffic over Benelux and northern Germany for aircraft flying at 24,500ft or above, it boasts infrastructure scaleable to handle expected increases in traffic until 2020.
It also uses state-of-the-art colour displays, using windowing techniques and allowing much-improved visibility of the air traffic situation.
"I feel sure this system will prove to be a reference for many other centres," said Victor Aguado, director general at Eurocontrol, during last month's opening.
As well as better defining the differences between military and civilian uses of airspace, the integrated, standardised systems that transcend national borders could help prevent disasters.
In July, a tragic mid-air collision over southern Germany between a Russian passenger jet and a German cargo plane killed 71 crew and passengers.
An investigation by German Air Traffic Control found that controllers at its Karlsruhe facility had noted the potential conflict two minutes before the collision.
But their attempts to contact Swiss colleagues in Zurich, who were also in communication with the aircraft, over the priority voice network failed.
By the time the call was made over the public phone network, the pilots did not have enough time to avoid the collision. Zurich's own Short Term Conflict Alert System was not operational due to maintenance.
Eurocontrol said that its guidelines would give priority to clarifying the use of the Airborne Collision Avoidance System and the Short-Term and Medium-Term Conflict Detection system as it develops a roadmap for a new European air traffic management system.
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