European air traffic management
11 January 2012
EUROCONTROL's Bo Redeborn shares his thoughts about the future of European air traffic management and how the region is planning for the rise in air traffic
We are all familiar with movies that show an air traffic controller seated in front of a screen filled with moving dots, rattling off incomprehensible instructions to pilots at breakneck speed and thus averting almost certain tragedy. Of course, movies are rarely true to life and, in any case, that is 'air traffic control' – the process of making sure that the aircraft on the screen get where they need to, without coming too close to each other.
Air traffic management (ATM), meanwhile, is the work behind the scenes. It is responsible for making sure that airports or sectors are not overloaded with flights, and is in charge of designing the route network, liaising with the military to free up their airspace when they are not using it and planning for the future. Essentially, ATM has four main objectives:
• Safety – minimising the chance of accidents;
• Capacity – reducing delays;
• Efficiency – not just minimising the cost of the air traffic control service, but also saving airlines money by allowing aircraft to fly direct routes and fuel-efficient flight profiles;
• Environment – reducing the impact of flights on the environment, in terms of emissions and also, for example, in terms of noise.
These objectives are becoming ever more challenging as traffic grows and the skies become more crowded. On a summer's day, there are already more than 30,000 flights in European airspace, and this is forecast to increase by between 2-3% every year. Already, we are seeing delays well above target, and several airports are either at, or are approaching, full capacity.The Single European Sky
The response to this challenge is the EU's Single European Sky (SES). At its heart, this is a move to a performance-driven system with binding targets. This regime begins next year, with each state required to present plans to show how it is going to play its part in meeting the tough targets on capacity, efficiency and the environment.
The very existence of the regime can be expected to bring perfomance improvement benefits as air navigation service providers (ANSPs) realise that they are being closely scrutinised. However, this will not be enough in itself; so the SES legislation has also set out three key elements to help:
Functional Airspace Blocks-
The first of these is the creation of Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs). At present, Europe's airspace is a patchwork – each country has its own ANSP that operates independently. This fragmentation leads to major inefficiencies, both operationally and in terms of the number of support staff.
Each of the nine FABs, however, will cover the airspace over several countries. For example, the FAB Europe Central (FABEC) will cover Germany, France, Switzerland and the Low Countries; over half of Europe's air traffic will fly through its airspace. Although the FABs are already doing valuable work on, for example, improving route design, it will take time to obtain the real benefits that should be achievable from more integrated operations, as there are significant technical, cultural and industrial relations challenges to be overcome.
The second key element is the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) programme. Some €2bn is being put into developing the technology and procedures that will result in a major change in all the aspects of ATM, from how airports manage arrivals and departures, to how we ensure the safe separation of aircraft in the en route phase. The long-term aim is to move towards the concept of 4D trajectory management, with aircraft following a flight plan that is updated interactively in real time. Air traffic controllers would therefore take on much more of a monitoring role, rather than actively directing traffic.
The development phase of SESAR is being managed by the SESAR Joint Undertaking, a partnership between the EU, industry and EUROCONTROL, who are leading several of the packages and contributing to two-thirds of the projects. Of course, even once the research, validation and development stages are complete, it is still necessary to implement the improvement before the benefits can be achieved. It is estimated that this will cost a total of €30bn, spread over several years and split between the air navigation service providers and the aircraft operators. There may also need to be some public sector money spent to help stimulate this investment and overcome the 'last mover advantage' that has slowed deployment in the past.
The third element that is planned to help achieve the performance targets is the creation of a network manager. This role has been given to EUROCONTROL, which has for many years been operating a flow management unit, allocating slots to help ensure that no airport or air traffic control sector is overloaded. This reduces the need for en route diversions and minimises the extent of stacking at the arrival airport. EUROCONTROL has also been improving the network planning and liaising with the military. This helps to ensure that aircraft can fly more direct routes between airports, using military airspace whenever it can be made available for civilian flights.
The network manager role not only builds on this, but also goes further. We are already starting to see a real benefit in terms of reducing delays, although there is much further to go to meet the performance regime target. Another task for the network manager is to run a Crisis Coordination Cell, allowing Europe to provide a better and more unified response to urgent events, such as volcanic ash clouds.Global interoperability
A final point to consider when looking at the future of ATM is the need for global interoperability. Aircraft fly all over the world, and it is imperative that they do not have to carry two parallel sets of equipment. Neither should the crew have to be trained in many different procedures, depending on whether they are flying over one continent or another.
The relevant global body is the world's International Civil Aviation Organisation, which is holding a major Air Navigation Conference next year. This conference will present a significant opportunity to reach agreements on global standards that will enable the development of ATM that is urgently needed in order to cope safely with the expected rise in air traffic. We need to ensure that there is a single, clear European voice so that this conference addresses the needs and priorities facing Europe.
However, we must also make sure that we understand and take into account the concerns of other regions, which are facing very different challenges. After all, perhaps more than almost any other sector, aviation is inherently global in nature.