European initiatives look to remove ATC jams

 - February 5, 2007, 5:40 AM

The air-traffic community gathered in the Netherlands last month to discuss the continually evolving options for modernizing ATC. The process is both helped and hindered by technologies that don’t seem to stand still long enough for decisions to endure, but the participants are learning to keep up with this rapid pace of advancement and deal with the slowly gelling cultures of Europe’s main players.

Gatherings of the air traffic management (ATM) community are commonly long on talk and short on actual progress, an understandable state of affairs given the sector’s legacy of intricate and often aging systems and regulations, the complexity of the political and economic interests at play and the need for broad consensus on substantive change.

Developments highlighted at the year’s biggest such gathering, the ATC Maastricht exhibition in the Netherlands last month, suggested that things may be changing. In Europe, the single European sky (SES) legislation bequeathed by former European transport commissioner Loyola de Palacio promises liberation from the jigsaw puzzle of arbitrary and inflexible flight information regions (FIRs) based on national boundaries.

Both in Europe and elsewhere there are signs that the focus of ATM provision is switching from the national to the regional level. And the rigid distinctions between the roles of air navigation service providers (ANSPs) and the industry that supplies their systems and equipment are giving way to a more flexible and pragmatic approach.

Daniel Calleja, the European Commission’s director of air transport, told the Jane’s conference that is an integral part of the ATC event that new commissioner Jacques Barrot shares de Palacio’s enthusiasm for the single sky initiative, the key objective of which is to redesign the continent’s upper airspace on the basis of functionality, replacing nationally based FIRs with functional airspace blocks (FABs).

The UK’s National Air Traffic Services and the Irish Aviation Authority announced in Maastricht that they have commissioned consultants Helios Technology to study the issues associated with combining the two countries’ airspace into what could be the first FAB. The study is intended to identify the operational, technical, institutional, financial and regulatory aspects of the move, as well as to evaluate stakeholder benefits and concerns and the need for further work.

The commission “strongly supports” the Sesame initiative, the goal of which is the development and implementation of the European ATM road map. The Air Traffic Alliance and Eurocontrol spearhead the project. Airbus, EADS and Thales formed the Air Traffic Alliance in mid-2002 to combine their respective expertise in aircraft manufacture and operations, satellite and space technologies and avionics and ATM systems.

“Sesame has unlocked a lot of hidden ideas that hadn’t emerged in the ANSP or ATM world before,” commented Thales Air Systems senior vice president Alexandre de Juniac. “Everybody agreed it was the right idea but nobody dared say it.”

Developing an ATC Roadmap
The basic idea is to spend the next two years drawing up a master plan for the future of European ATM and then implementing it in three phases between 2007 and 2020. In October last year the European Commission’s Trans European Networks-Transport (TEN-T) agreed to fund the first year of the definition phase to the tune of $17.9 million (E14 million), with another $20.4 million (E16 million) required for the second year’s work. Eurocontrol is contributing another $38.3 million (E30 million), made up of one-third in cash, one-third in kind and the balance in the form of work already done.

At the end of January Eurocontrol formally called for tenders for a two-year study intended to produce the master plan. The Air Traffic Alliance has formed a team numbering no fewer than 42 entities–among them the European Business Aviation Association (EBAA)–to address the 20 work packages made up of 65 tasks and expects to add more on a subcontract basis if it wins the study contract. Responses are due by April 5.

Much of the urgency stems from the EC’s timetable for allocating TEN-T research funds, Air Traffic Alliance president Lionnel Wonneberger told reporters. The TEN-T program’s current annual budget of $638.8 million (E500 million) is set to increase by a factor of five or six in the period between 2007 and 2013, but the budget for those years has to be frozen by June.

Wonneberger said the commission had undertaken to spend $255.5 million (E200 million) annually for five years, though it would expect the proportion of private funding to increase as the transition to implementation proceeds.

The Air Traffic Alliance’s projection of a future system includes improved aircraft navigation performance based on augmented satellite signals, the microwave landing system (MLS) and the FMS landing system. Datalink would be used for the exchange of four-dimensional trajectories, and automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B) would support a cockpit display of traffic information.

None of these concepts is new: the significance of the Sesame proposal is that it maps a route from the conceptual to the concrete. “The problem is that it has not been possible to turn all the work done on new concepts into deployment,” Wonneberger said. “Now the European Commission has a number of tools to make it happen.” The SES legislation empowers the commission to mandate new systems and to give incentives for early deployment to operators and ANSPs.

In conjunction with Boeing, Airbus, Qantas and Airservices Australia, the alliance has already demonstrated the use of datalink to deliver tailored approach profiles to the airline’s Airbus A330s and Boeing 747-400s landing at Sydney and Melbourne. The electronic clearances optimize the efficiency of the approach profile while almost eliminating the voice communications workload for controllers and pilots.

The trials in Australia, which involved around 75 approaches between April and September last year, took advantage of the fact that both the Airservices ground systems and the Qantas aircraft were equipped for future air navigation system (FANS) 1/A data communications. Results revealed at Maastricht include the finding that actual arrival times differed by as little as two seconds and never more than 30 seconds from predictions made 40 minutes in advance. Also, enabling the aircraft to approach with engines at flight idle reduced noise and emissions, and the estimated saving of 400 to 800 pounds of fuel per flight represents an annual saving of more than $100,000 per aircraft.