After 12 long years of nothing promising for harmonizing Southeast Asian trade relations, there was a surprise development in the closing days of 2013 when a trade agreement was finally struck in Bali. Not glamorous, and focused largely on streamlining mundane processes that can impede cargo as it travels across borders, the agreement nevertheless holds considerably promise in terms of the growth of air travel and cargo.
The December pact and further progress between Southeast Asian ASEAN trading partners expected in 2015, should both deliver a positive boost to Asian airlines and supplement the growth effects of an emerging urban middle class.
Following the Bali deal, International Air Transport Association (IATA) chief economist Brian Pearce said the outlook over the next 10 years for both airlines and cargo is good if obstacles facing world trade that impact both premium travel growth and air cargo demand can be overcome.
Efforts to break through the remaining barriers to growth are only going to accelerate the issues faced by those charged with managing air traffic across the region: its air navigation service providers (ANSPs).
Many key airports in the Asia Pacific region are already operating at near full capacity with airlines having to manage long-term NOTAMs on arrival delay, a lack of timely information for long-haul flights and interacting with an air traffic control community where capabilities vary widely. Yet the Asia Pacific region is forecast to be the world’s fastest area of growth for air transport over the next 20 years, with connectivity becoming an ever more critical link to markets and a generator of wealth.
The Civil Air Navigation Service Organization (CANSO) is not overstating the case when it points out that the Asia Pacific region is probably the world’s most diverse in terms of types of ANSP, technical challenges, traffic management and capacity issues, in addition to cultural and political differences within the region.
“It is facing a fascinating challenge as traffic growth and economic pressure bring calls for greater ATM reform and cooperation,” said CANSO. The organization, which counts 15 Asia Pacific ANSPs as members, insists activity should be centered on what is most important and impactful. Its regional operations workgroup is therefore focusing on three key areas to create air traffic capacity and manage demand using performance-based navigation (PBN) technologies, ADS-B satellite aircraft tracking and a combination of air traffic flow management and collaborative decision-making (ATFM/CDM).
Hai Eng Chiang, CANSO director of Asia Pacific affairs, reports that progress in ADS-B data sharing is well under way with effective information exchange across the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea.
In terms of efforts to achieve en-route PBN harmonization, several city pairs–such as Bangkok-Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur-Singapore and Singapore-Jakarta, as well as Male-Colombo and Kolkata-Dhaka–have been identified for further work.
On the ATFM/CDM front, the group is also discussing how the up-and-running Bangkok-Singapore CDM city pair project could evolve into a subregional initiative involving the ANSPs of Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong.
Not an Overnight Fix
However, there is still much to do. A 2011 meeting of the Southeast Asia route review task force in Bangkok spelled out the challenge: although regional aviation partners are fully aware of the urgent need for seamless ATM, it would not occur overnight.
Even so, the task force glimpsed a chink of light when it noted that between neighboring city pairs in a flight information region (FIR) or across FIRs, seamless ATM could be entirely achievable in the short term. Many city pairs in the region were already operating in seamless or close to seamless fashion where even ground handling was included in the decision-making chain.
It added that traffic between more popular city pairs could easily be handled with greater uniformity and efficiency from one FIR to another and that even without the latest advanced technology, a great deal could be done using available tools. This might simply be a case of improving route infrastructure, harmonizing procedures and separation standards along an entire route, or simply agreements spelling out regulations that would improve how neighboring air traffic controllers collaborate with each other.
The CANSO Bangkok-Singapore CDM team was formed in 2011 shortly after that meeting with the goal of applying CDM principles to all phases of operations of air traffic between Bangkok and Singapore. It acted to bring the aviation partners within Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand together.
The team, co-chaired by the Aerothai air traffic control agency and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), includes civil aviation officials from Malaysia, Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways, airport operators in Thailand and Singapore, supported by CANSO experts from Airservices Australia and Airbus-owned Metron Aviation.
Together they conducted an operational trial to share crucial traffic information involving 112 revenue flights between Bangkok and Singapore throughout the summer of 2012 and succeeded in enhancing both operational predictability and how each of the partners used their respective resources.
The trial also helped to garner further support for the project from IATA and Airports Council International, and saw the Hong Kong civil aviation authority agreeing to join the project. The now-extended Hong Kong-Singapore-Thailand CDM/ATFM team is continuing the work to develop a scalable collaborative concept. That envisions airports and airspace fitting into virtual ATFM nodes where catchment partners work together and exchange information.
Singapore and Airbus Team
Singapore’s CAAS and Airbus’ ATM subsidiary ProSky have since embarked on a collaborative research project to improve the regional ATM framework. “One such collaboration focuses on the proof of an ATFM concept,” explained Aerothai’s Piyawut Tantimekabut, who co-chairs the CDM initiative. “This runs concurrently with the tripartite initiative to assist in the completion of the proof-of-concept research, thus providing a viable ATFM/CDM concept that might be considered for adoption by willing ANSPs in the region.”
Running alongside these initiatives is the APEC air traffic management emissions reduction project, which aims to study the economic and environmental benefits of CDM/ATFM implementation on the Bangkok-Kuala Lumpur city pair and neighboring airports. The APEC project, which involves the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and aviation authorities from Malaysia and Thailand, has been awarded to Airbus ProSky and will complement the development of the collaborative regional concept.
Tantimekabut said the CDM/ATFM team and the APEC project came together at a crucial moment when the ICAO Asia Pacific Seamless ATM plan had just been approved by the ICAO Asia-Pacific Air Navigation Planning and Implementation Regional Group in June 2013. This was accompanied by a decision to reconvene the ICAO Asia-Pacific ATFM steering group, which was tasked with developing a common harmonized framework to manage air traffic flow in the region.
“Overall, 2013 has been a year of solid achievements,” said Chiang, “from the successful completion of the Bangkok-Singapore CDM city pair trial to the commencement of ADS-B operations over the South China Sea, and the expansion of ADS-B collaboration over the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. At the implementation level, all these are concrete outcomes that have significant impact on ATM in the region.”