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Straight Talking: Air Traffic Management

The air traffic management system of tomorrow must facilitate more direct routings that bring benefits for both safety and operational efficiency

Demand for air transport is growing. In Asia, passenger flights per month extrapolated to 2020 show a 50% increase. The Latin American region will experience a 40% increase in movements per month, as will the Middle East. African flight numbers will rise by 11%.

Accommodating this growing demand is critical to the sustainability of aviation and will require nothing less than an air traffic management (ATM) revolution. Paul Steele, IATA Director, Aviation Environment, describes ATM improvements as an “environmental and business necessity.” He points out that by 2030 it is forecast that 13.5 trillion passenger kilometers will be flown annually—nearly three times the current level. The number of aircraft movements will almost double in the same period—to some 49 million per year.

Without subsequent improvements in ATM, the passenger experience will begin to suffer. Delays at the major airports in China, for example, could near two hours in just seven years’ time. Already, according to the Air Transport Action Group’s Revolutionising Air Traffic Management report, delays in the Greater New York airspace cost the economy $2.6 billion every year.

“We need cost-effective solutions that provide airlines with predictability, allowing them to be efficient and to plan appropriately,” asserts Rob Eagles, IATA Director for Infrastructure. “This will increase aircraft and airport utilization and enhance the passenger experience.”

Technology in place

Technology is not the limiting factor, but there is a mismatch between what’s available on the ground and the modern avionics onboard aircraft. On some routes, airlines are flying 21st-century aircraft in increasing numbers while using outdated ground-based infrastructure and networks.

The capability of onboard avionics when coupled with the latest infrastructure has been demonstrated time and again.

Performance Based Navigation (PBN) allows aircraft to fly precisely defined paths without resorting to ground-based signals and this brings safety, environmental and efficiency benefits. One element of PBN, Required Navigation Performance (RNP), is being implemented at airports around the world.

GE has calculated that airlines would save $65.6 million and 39,000 tonnes of fuel a year if RNP approaches were standardized at just 46 regional airports in the United States. RNP is already in place at 16 Australian airports and Qantas flies around 120 RNP procedures a day. It estimates $20 million a year in savings from fuel and other costs once RNP is rolled out nationwide.

The priority, and challenge, is to extend PBN across the global ATM system.   

Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), the next generation of surveillance technology, provides a complementary way forward. It enables reduced separation between aircraft and makes more efficient use of the airspace. Europe and the United States have published ADS-B standards and Australia and Indonesia have recently agreed to exchange ADS-B flight data for flights between the two countries.

NAV CANADA has also been active in this area and projected savings to 2020 from improved flight trajectories as a result of ADS-B deployment will amount to $379 million for airlines through reduced fuel burn. That’s equivalent to more than one million tonnes of CO2 emissions.

NAV CANADA has also joined with Iridium on the Aireon project, which will extend ADS-B coverage. Iridium will put ADS-B technology on its next generation low-earth orbiting satellites. The project should go live in 2018 and it is estimated that it will bring $100 million a year in savings for the airlines across the North Atlantic alone.

Three air navigation service providers (ANSPs)—from Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam—have worked together on ADS-B implementation on two routes across the South China Sea. It will save 1,300 tonnes of fuel, 4.5 million tonnes of CO2, and around $4 million a year.

Take it off the page

Such case studies are now commonplace and Eagles points out that over the past couple of years work has been going on to bring all these elements together. Harmonization is both critical and achievable. The missing piece to the puzzle on many occasions, however, is political will.

“While technology across the board can be brought to a level that allows aircraft to optimize their routings, it is governments that hold the key to an ATM revolution,” says Eagles. “There are no major obstacles to global interoperability and harmonization. Governments must ensure that ATM modernization is a priority.”

Consolidation of ANSPs, especially in Europe, will ease harmonization issues. The example of the Agency for Aerial Navigation Safety in Africa and Madagascar (ASECNA) illustrates the point. This was formed in 1959 and successfully manages an airspace 1.5 times the size of Europe, involving 17 countries. Russia also has big consolidation plans, reducing its 118 area control centers to just 13.

Eagles points to Europe’s Functional Airspace Blocks as an example not only of the way forward, but also of the roadblocks in the sky that exist in other regions.

“The idea and the process are there,” he notes. “But the political will to move forward is missing. We are not asking governments to forsake control over their airspace. We are asking them to collaborate with neighbouring states in the interest of the air transport industry and their own economies. With air transport estimated to provide 7.8 million jobs and $632.6 billion (¤475 billion) in GDP across the European Union, it’s too important to society to see it artificially constrained. We need to take these ideas off the page.”

Global plan

ICAO has also embarked on its Block Upgrades program, part of the overall Global Air Navigation Plan. This links ATM advances to specific performance areas in four blocks of time and will take the industry to 2028 and beyond. It will bring advances such as PBN and ADS-B together in a flexible framework that allows countries to adopt new technologies as appropriate.

“The block upgrades have been designed to facilitate global interoperability by establishing operational improvements that will guide future technology innovation,” says ICAO Air Navigation Bureau Director Nancy Graham.

“By getting states and industry to agree on the specific operational benefits that will be needed to safely and efficiently manage the coming doubling of traffic,” Graham continues, “ICAO was able to ask states with mature ATM modernization plans to work together with IATA and other stakeholders to develop a strategy that has now been agreed to globally and can be implemented flexibly based on the specific operational needs of each state or region.

“We are very grateful for the outstanding collaboration that produced this Global Air Navigation Plan, which was endorsed by the 12th Air Navigation Conference,” continues Graham. “It will support aviation’s safe and orderly growth for the next 15 years.”   

The first block upgrades are widely available. They include PBN, continuous climb and descent operations, and other developments that have evolved within high density airspace in recent years. ICAO and IATA have been partnering for several years to assist states in implementing PBN, which is both ICAO’s and IATA’s number one air navigation priority.

“The challenges for the future do not lie with the technology or operational improvements,” says Graham. “Instead they’re institutional and related to financing the aviation system improvements and encouraging onboard equipage for Block 1 in the future. ICAO will be discussing these issues in the upcoming Air Transport Conference in March 2013 and has a collaborative work program planned to resolve these issues.”

Flexible routings

User Preferred Routes (UPRs) promote flexible, direct flights that don’t adhere to a predefined structure. That means aircraft can take advantage of a shift in wind direction, for example. More than 90% of today’s aircraft are capable of flying a flexible route, but fewer than 10% actually do. This is primarily owing to regulatory requirements to fly a fixed route following a ground network. Although controllers are responsive to aircraft needs, if an airline was allowed to fly a flexible route in advance it would be able to reduce fuel weight. Saving just one minute daily on a single flight by flying a flexible route would save an airline more than $87,000 and reduce CO2 emissions by nearly 280,000 tonnes a year.



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