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Air Traffic Management - An Ocean of Talent

Mark Chivers explores the work being done to mitigate aviation’s environmental impact on trans-Pacific routes

Spanning almost a third of the Earth’s surface, the Pacific Ocean is larger than all of the world’s land areas combined—stretching from the Artic to the Antarctic, from the Americas to Asia.

The long flights to cross it once meant hefty fuel consumption and associated emissions levels, but new initiatives have greatly reduced an aircraft’s environmental impact.

ASPIRE—the Asia and Pacific Initiative to Reduce Emissions—was originally conceived as a South Pacific-centered scheme by its three founders—Airservices Australia, Airways New Zealand, and the US Federal Aviation Administration. It was inaugurated in 2008 and immediately endorsed by IATA. But so great is the potential that ASPIRE has since been expanded to incorporate the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau, and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS). AEROTHAI will officially join the initiative in June 2011.

While the geographic scope of the initiative has widened considerably, the basic goals remain the same. ASPIRE is a collaborative approach to the environmental stewardship of aviation in the region. Its main focus is on developing and implementing new operational procedures aimed at significantly reducing aviation’s carbon footprint from gate to gate. The project has established performance metrics to systematically measure any improvements and is using the data generated to pinpoint appropriate mitigation methods for the short, medium, and long term.

Proving a Point

It’s a massive undertaking for a massive area, yet already there have been some notable developments. Together with Singapore Airlines, CAAS has demonstrated the world’s first multi-sector green flight. The flight—operated using a Boeing 747-400—took off from Los Angeles and transited at Tokyo before final touchdown in Singapore. In all, the service generated a 6% fuel saving over a normal operation and a reduction of about 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Extensive pre-flight preparation set up the eco-flight. A special engine wash program optimized their efficiency and the aircraft even had a deluxe wax and shine to help reduce drag. A ground electrical supply was used to power the aircraft on stand rather than the plane’s auxiliary power unit.

But the real benefits were generated through the flexibility of a user preferred route that allowed the pilot to alter the flight path based on prevailing wind patterns. “The route an aircraft takes, the altitude at which it flies, and the weather it encounters all affect the amount of fuel it burns and the carbon dioxide emitted,” says Singapore Airlines’ Senior Vice President of Flight Operations, Gerard Yeap.

Other gate to gate trans-Pacific demonstration flights by Air New Zealand, Japan Airlines, Qantas, and United Airlines have confirmed the veracity of the data, with average fuel savings of more than 4% and a total reduction in CO2 emissions of over 100 tonnes.

Daily Improvements

The task ahead is to learn from, and build upon, these strong foundations as quickly as is feasible. Next up is the ASPIRE Daily Program, in which specific city pairs will be examined with a focus on the best practices available.

IATA member airlines will document the available environmentally friendly services, practices and procedures, with ASPIRE reporting these findings each quarter on a new website designed specifically for the task. ASPIRE’s star rating system highlights how well each city pair is performing—with five stars indicating that all best practice procedures and services are available.

The initial ASPIRE Daily Program city pair is Auckland and San Francisco. Air New Zealand began reporting its findings in late February. New routes are being added on a rolling basis. By encouraging airlines to document their findings, it is expected that ASPIRE city pairs with lower star ratings will see rapid improvements in best practice implementation.

Chairman of ASPIRE Doug Scott reveals that extending the Daily Program is only the beginning of a busy year ahead. “We will expand Automatic Dependent Surveillance‑Broadcast (ADS-B) coverage across the South China Sea with operational trials planned for late 2011,” he says. “ADS-B is an enabler for reduced separation standards that significantly increase airspace capacity and the availability of preferred routes and flight levels. We will also begin operational trials of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Contract (ADS-C) In-Trail Procedures (ITP) in the Pacific. These procedures facilitate the more timely availability of preferred cruise level.”

Other ASPIRE-driven projects anticipated in the next 12 months include the expansion of User Preferred Route (UPR) availability, particularly in high-density oceanic areas such as between New Zealand and Australia, and the implementation of reduced oceanic separation standards (RNP10 and RNP4) in the South China Sea and Bay of Bengal. Meanwhile, ongoing work—the optimization of arrivals and departures in all partner countries being the obvious example—will continue to gather pace. Oceanic improvements have been the primary focus to date, but influencing airspace improvements around the airports is now high on the agenda.

Challenges Ahead

It’s not all open skies ahead, however. There are several key issues to be ironed out if ASPIRE, and aviation globally, is to realize its environmental potential. Traffic in Asia-Pacific is booming, threatening to negate much of the emissions saving through sheer weight of numbers. Scott is undaunted. “The ASPIRE goals are considered to be appropriate and beneficial irrespective of the rate of traffic growth,” he says.

Scott accepts, however, that to keep driving ASPIRE’s momentum the deliverables have to be more than a handful of demonstration flights by partner airlines and increasing the program membership. “This is where the ASPIRE Daily Program is vital, because it will highlight the environmental efficiencies achieved on a wide number of daily pairs on a normal schedule,” he suggests.

Then there is the ever-present question of cost. Part of ASPIRE’s methodology is to rely on, wherever possible, tried and trusted technology—the sort of avionics that airlines have already implemented. Significantly, Scott believes that airlines won’t have to dip their hands deep into their pockets to bring about further environmental gains. “Most of the services and procedures being promoted by ASPIRE make use of existing technology that is already in operational use by a significant proportion of long-haul aircraft,” he says.

Some countries, on the other hand, may need to be persuaded to invest in the latest technology for their air navigation services provider to ensure the full benefits can be achieved. The key enablers for managing the efficiency of flights over oceanic areas are known as Datalink applications. These applications facilitate reduced oceanic separation minima and Dynamic Airborne Rerouting Procedure (DARP), which allows an aircraft to adjust its position for fuel or time savings. When ASPIRE started, DARP was available on only 5% of flights from North America to Australasia but that number is growing. Air New Zealand estimates that 58% of its flights could benefit from DARP.

Airports may also need to find additional funds—especially those smaller gateways that are beginning to grow in tandem with the region’s traffic. “Arrival, surface movement, and departure optimizations are dependent on airport and approach systems,” concludes Scott. “For airports within the influence of the ASPIRE partners, the level of capability is good. With the rapid growth of traffic we expect to see a significant number of airport upgrades, which will include the necessary infrastructure improvements to support ASPIRE best practice.”

With that kind of aspiration in place it seems flying across the greatest wilderness on the planet will soon be turning appropriately green.

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