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Air Traffic Management - Seamless Asian Sky

The world’s largest aviation market is set to ramp up the efficiency of its air traffic control systems

Asia-Pacific is developing fast. The region’s economy is set to grow an average of 4.7% a year for the next 20 years. This will boost its share of world GDP from 27% today to 35% by 2030.

Airlines do not plan to miss out. According to Boeing’s long‑term market outlook, Asia-Pacific will need 11,450 new aircraft by 2030, to help cope with a predicted 6.7% average increase in passenger traffic. Cargo growth will be comparable, equating to more than 350 new freighters plus over 500 passenger‑to-freighter conversions. It all adds up to a market that will be worth $1.5 trillion, easily surpassing any other region.

Such breathtaking activity demands an effective infrastructure. The sky these aircraft soar through could be very different from that of today. Although retaining its traditional divisions, the air traffic management will be seamless, affording airline operations far greater efficiency.

From drawing board to reality

The Seamless Asian Sky (SAS) concept has been on the drawing board for a couple of years but has already achieved widespread, high-level support—incredibly quick progress considering the timescales of the Single European Sky and US NextGen programs. IATA, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the ICAO Asia Pacific Air Navigation Planning and Implementation Regional Group (APANPIRG), and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Transportation Working Group have all declared their commitment to the project.

Savings relating to the SAS are the subject of a study group but a comparison with Europe provides a brief insight into the potential of the project. European fragmentation costs the industry on two fronts: the underused avionics installed on most modern aircraft and the lack of harmonization between airspace blocks. It means European ATC costs are about $1,050 a flight (EUR770) compared with near $600 (EUR440) in the United States. Put another way, of the $17.7 billion (EUR13 billion) paid by airlines to European ATC each year, about $4 billion (EUR3 billion) is wasted in inefficiency. On average, a flight is 12% longer than it needs to be.

Given that more traffic flows along main trunk routes in Asia‑Pacific, the savings for an SAS could be enormous. And it is not only about savings. Seamless airspace and the technology that enables it will ensure that safety is enhanced as air traffic across the region increases markedly.

“All this support is not without logic or reason,” confirms Owen Dell, Cathay Pacific Manager, International Operations. “In the past we have tended to focus on trying to reduce the number of Flight Information Regions as a means of improving the delivery of safe and efficient air traffic services. Consolidation of airspace was always going to be difficult, if not impossible, in the Asia‑Pacific region given the large number of states and the political complexities. Seamless Asian Skies represents a pragmatic solution as there is no need or intent to change airspace boundaries.”

SAS does not mean one owner. Each state retains complete control of its airspace but the different jurisdictions are interoperable. “The answer to enhancing air traffic service safety and efficiency lies in ensuring that, from an operational perspective, the airspace boundaries are transparent, or seamless,” explains Dell. “If service delivery on both sides of a boundary is provided according to an agreed regional operational concept then the problem is solved. Once this transparency of airspace boundaries exists, any future service delivery enhancements can be implemented as “block upgrades” or, in other words, coordinated and harmonized implementations.”

The regional heavyweights have all welcomed the debate. China, India, and Japan will each provide valuable input and this should enable smaller countries to find their place as part of the jigsaw. “I think the region will work differently from Europe and the United States,” says Ken McLean, IATA Regional Director, Safety, Operations, and Infrastructure, Asia-Pacific. “It is a diverse set of cultures but all value the relationship, and this will determine the project’s success as much as technical know-how and business sense.”

Revitalizing infrastructure

A Seamless Asian Sky has become a priority for a number of reasons. Environmental, financial, and technical factors all come into play. Emissions can be reduced by a more efficient use of airspace while airlines will save substantial amounts through reduced fuel burn. Passengers have valuable time shaved off their journeys with all the inherent benefits that brings.

Technically, Asia has some of the world’s youngest fleets and the aircraft are all but capable of autonomous flight. Taking a user-preferred trajectory is simple from an airline point of view. But the infrastructure needs to be brought up to speed to match the airline investment in hardware and provide service for the modern environment. The SAS project will help define targets for this important development. Mandates on aircraft equipment already exist in other regions so, for international carriers, it makes sense to utilize that equipment as much as possible.

Asia is also aware that the United States and Europe are moving ahead with NextGen and Single European Sky. As the largest aviation market Asia-Pacific needs to keep pace with industry developments. Just as crucial will be ensuring all three major regions have interoperable airspace, so keeping pace with the United States and Europe will allow Asia‑Pacific to align SAS correctly.

The first steps

The Seamless Asian Sky took a step closer to reality in early September when APANPIRG approved a Seamless Asian Skies Planning Group. This will deliver a preliminary report in 2012 and a final report the following year. This two-year planning exercise is essentially a gap analysis, identifying what needs to be done. It will establish a timeframe for implementation and any other guidelines. It makes sense to tie in as much as possible with NextGen and SES implementation.

“There will be challenges for individual countries to bring them up to speed, but it’s nothing that cannot be solved with technology readily available today,” believes McLean. “It will be the geopolitical situation that will ultimately determine when the SAS becomes reality.”

Fortunately, Asia recognizes the value of aviation and many governments have progressive aviation policies. Indonesia, for example, has nearly 250 million people in an archipelago of 18,000 islands spread across 5,000 kilometers of ocean. Flying is an essential connector with the global network.

“From an airline perspective it’s the output that is important,” concludes Cathay’s Dell. “How and who delivers the service is not important. Seamless Asian Skies offers a manageable way of improving and enhancing the safety and efficiency of service delivery to the customers. That’s exactly what we want.”

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