RIGA - Not only will Latvian soil become part of the EU, but the nation's sky will join as well. As part of the European open sky arrangement, the nation's air traffic regulations will merge with those of the continent. And it is not at all surprising that the debates and decisions on Latvia's air space are just as complex as those dealing with its land.
At the peak hour on any given day, some 2,800 aircraft are flying in all directions over Europe. Three hundred planes alone cross over Latvia. These figures are expected to double within the next 10 years. As a result, the country's current system of air traffic security is being pushed to its limits.
Although computer technology plays a dominant role, air traffic control is still in the hands of humans, who rely on radars for navigation and radios for communication. Each controller looks after a three dimensional "sector" of air space and can only handle so many planes in his sector at one time. As a plane flies through each sector, the pilot must adjust his radio frequency and adapt to a new controller. With the rapid growth of air traffic, there has been a coinciding increase in the number of sectors for each country. More sectors mean more difficulty.
"What's happening out there in the sky is an extremely, precisely organized system of air traffic management," says Romans Baumanis, vice president of the PBN company, a consultancy that is advising the private sector on the issue.
"There are exact routes that are charted, sophisticated tracking devices that establish where the planes are – at what altitude, at what speed, their exact direction - and ongoing communication between air traffic controllers and pilots," says Baumanis.
A solution to the growing air traffic problem is an envisioned single European sky – expanding national zones beyond the borders of each country. In a sense, it would be a European Union hovering thousands of meters above our heads.
But while countries continue to argue over rules and regulations within the European Union on land, they are equally hesitant to make compromises in the air as well.
"There's an intensive policy debate going on in the European Union," Baumanis says. "If you look at the European sky, it looks like a patchwork of control zones. We are facing the challenge of how to harmonize the legislations and procedures within the EU to create a more centralized system that can be more cost effective"
Yet professionals agree that a single European sky with a uniform control system is the one way to ensure efficient and safe air travel. According to Arnis Muiznieks, director of the aviation department at the Transport Ministry, Latvia will see steady improvement in air traffic control upon EU accession.
"We are now taking part in this project – harmonizing our systems in full compatibility with European systems," Muiznieks says. "But the ultimate goal of a single European sky could take between 10 and 20 years."
Latvia currently has one of the most advanced systems in the world, according to Baumanis, and there are two entities that play an integral part: Air Navigation Services, a privately owned engineering company that serves as the technological component of the system, and Latvijas Gaisa Satiksme (Latvia's Air Traffic), a state owned company that operates the control towers and communicates with pilots.
In 1998, these two enterprises signed a service contract for the duration of 15 years to maximize the quality of Latvia's air traffic system. Until recently, the two have succeeded in this goal.
Six months ago, LGS informed ANS that they were terminating their service contract. No explanations were given, though various stakeholders say that the decision was "political." Since the current state-private set-up is one of the most efficient in the world, the termination could have a critical effect on Latvia's air traffic system.
"It's hard to understand their motivation," Baumanis says. "Introducing changes that are obviously not needed is counterproductive. [It] will affect air traffic safety or at least decrease the volume of current flights. The state company just can't take their business away without providing the justifications."
Muiznieks, however, doesn't see the LGS termination as a significant problem and feels that the bigger issue facing Latvia will be the doubling of air traffic over the next decade.
"This is purely a service contract about air navigation means, radars and so on," he says. "There will be no dramatic impact on breaking this contract. We hope not to keep our achieved level of air safety but to improve it. With rising air traffic, this is a must."