Eurocontrol reports on air traffic management

 - December 18, 2007, 5:14 AM

“Aviation is emerging from the most difficult period in its history to date. This recovery is still fragile. It is under pressure from fuel costs, uncertain stability in regions, military conflicts, international terrorism and changes in the business model by low-cost carriers.

“On the other hand, traffic is growing. In Europe, we broke 29,000 flights per day on June 18. The highest traffic ever recorded was on September 10, with 29,490 flights. Delays are being contained. In fact, delays attributable to the en route segment are falling. Unit costs have fallen, too. From where we stand today, air traffic management (ATM) in Europe is looking good. We are not seeing the horror stories of 1999-2000,” stated Victor Aguado, general director of Eurocontrol, in a bad-news, good-news assessment during a recent open day session at the agency headquarters in Brussels.

Fragmentation of Europe’s airspace, a legacy of the region’s history, has compromised the efficient use of a scarce resource. This problem is complicated by the density and nature of Europe’s traffic patterns: 98 percent of European traffic departs from (or lands in) Europe and 74 percent of traffic is internal to the region.

When the EU Commissioner of Transport Loyola de Palacio launched the famous Single European Sky (SES) initiative in December 1999, she had the ambitious goal of reforming the architecture of European ATC to meet future capacity and safety needs by next year. Since then, the European ATM scene has been undergoing much change.

Since the EU is now a member of Eurocontrol, the two organizations are able to work closely together, using their combined mechanisms, procedures and expertise to ensure that the SES initiative is successful across Europe.

As Aguado recalled, “The European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation’s primary objective is to develop a seamless, pan-European air traffic management system that fully copes with the growth in air traffic, while maintaining a high level of safety, reducing costs and respecting the environment.”

Now in its 44th year, the European agency continues its expansion both in membership and in the scope of its activities. Eurocontrol has also forged close links with the European Commission.

As Europe’s leading center of expertise in air traffic management, Eurocontrol can be considered the ATM agency of Europe, just as EASA is the civil aviation safety agency of the EU (25 countries). It is not impossible to imagine that, one day, the two bodies will merge to form a single European agency, similar to the FAA in the U.S.

Safety, Security, Capacity and the Environment
Safety is Eurocontrol’s number-one priority. The agency launched its Strategic Safety Action Plan after the 2002 Überlingen accident, in which a Tupolev Tu-154 and a Boeing 757 collided in flight. Safety experts from all over the continent developed a plan to correct perceived flaws in the safety systems. “The plan was put into action in February this year and we expect it to produce concrete results,” said Aguado.

On the security front, Eurocontrol is also working with ICAO, NATO, the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC), the European Commission and Europol on means of improving security in air traffic management. For instance, in cooperation with these partners, the agency is preparing a system for the automatic analysis of flight plans to filter out potential suspect aircraft, as part of the safety assessment of foreign aircraft (SAFA) program.

Balancing capacity and delays is bound to be a constant preoccupation for the agency, especially given the increased traffic the organization expects. From 1999 through 2000, traffic grew by 12 percent but delays fell 80 percent. Tools and programs can help, as the remarkable capacity increases achieved with the reduced vertical separation minimums (RVSM) program two years ago suggest.

Adopting a more global approach, Eurocontrol developed a European ATM Master Plan, which is a performance-oriented, not just technology-driven, plan. The plan describes future requirements, articulates strategic objectives and outlines managerial and institutional policies. Overall, it contains an operational vision to be achieved through incremental evolution in practical steps.

Interoperability of systems–both on the ground and in the air–is also a must. “We cannot afford incompatible development, either in Europe or in the rest of the world. We must make sure that the same stringent requirements for technology, equipment and processes are implemented all over the world.

“This plan should help coordinate requirements and ensure that the standards set are the same, hopefully all over the globe,” emphasized Aguado. Indeed, Eurocontrol works closely with partners on the other side of the Atlantic as well as in Russia, the Middle East and North Africa.

With environmental issues gaining ever more prominence in Europe, Eurocontrol believes it has a role to play in helping to define aircraft performance and monitoring contributions from the aviation and ATM communities.

The European agency is presenting a paper to the ICAO assembly in which it will outline various pan-European environmental activities currently under way that it believes could usefully be applied globally.

Ground-air Communications: Datalink Coverage by 2007
Eurocontrol’s biggest project currently under way is the Link2000+ datalink program. The agency has learned its lessons from the implementation of previous programs (8.33-kHz radios, BRnav and so on) and has adopted a different approach with Link2000+. Instead of mandating a change and watching operators order and install the required equipment at the last minute, Eurocontrol is introducing incentives, in this case route charge reductions, to encourage operators to equip their aircraft sooner rather than later. The goal is to have 75 percent of flights made by aircraft equipped for Link2000+ by the end of this decade.

Link 2000+ is a pan-European program managed by Eurocontrol to coordinate the implementation of controller-pilot datalink communications (CPDLC) in the core area of Europe by 2007.

CPDLC is a message-based communication system between pilots and controllers and offers much the same advantages over voice radio communication that e-mail has over the telephone, explained Alex Wandels, Link 2000+ program manager.

In the context of saturated ATC voice communication frequencies, CPDLC can relieve the workload of both controllers and pilots by providing silent, easily readable messages to the correct recipient. “It cannot replace all voice communications because it is for the moment slower than the radio, but it can take care of all routine, non-critical communications,” noted Wandels.

Since its launch in September 2001, the Link 2000+ “pioneer” project has enjoyed some measure of success, with more than 120 aircraft destined to be equipped for ATN/VDL2 CPDLC. Implementation on the ground is also progressing on schedule. The incentive plans as well as the ruling for future mandatory equipage in Europe are not yet finalized.

Eurocontrol plans to implement CPDLC in the upper airspace of the Benelux countries, Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal before the end of 2007. The agency is also proposing a new mandate, requiring that 15 area control centers and all new aircraft (with an mtow of more than 20 tons and less than 200 tons) be equipped for datalink services from Jan. 1, 2009. Old-generation aircraft will have to comply by 2012. The mandate would apply to flights in the airspace above FL285 in the Link 2000+ area.

Ensuring Implementation
The agency has launched Cascade (cooperative air traffic services through surveillance and communications applications deployed in ECAC) to ensure that future cooperative air traffic services (ATS) will move swiftly and safely from concept to implementation. The primary goal of this program is to enhance information and task-sharing between the air and the ground to improve safety and reduce delays.

“The future ATM system will be able to exploit airborne systems alongside advanced ground-based technology to deliver more capacity and safety in a more cost-effective manner. Deployment of these applications will offer the opportunity to reduce ground infrastructure costs and optimize controller and pilot workload, thereby increasing productivity, enhancing flexibility and improving airborne and ground situational awareness,” underlined Wandels, who is also the Cascade manager.

The agency foresees implementing such key improvements as initial ADS-B, advanced CPDLC and datalink flight information services (D-FIS). It will make use of existing mode-S and VDL-2/ATN infrastructures where possible.

Under Cascade, a cockpit crew will be able to request and obtain a departure clearance to the destination and taxi clearance via datalink (CPDLC). The aircraft will then start to taxi; pilots and controllers will see other aircraft and ground vehicles through their datalink transmissions (ADS-B). While taxiing, the crew will request and obtain information on its destination airport through D-FIS.

The programs will undergo a series of operational trials in 2005-2006, with the first stream of implementation, addressing the limitations of radar-based surveillance, to start from 2008 onward.

The second phase, due to be implemented from 2010, is expected to introduce new ATM concepts where pilots and aircraft systems play a new role, based on knowledge of the surrounding traffic. Pilots will be able to perform new tasks and assist controllers in improving safety, capacity and efficiency. Controllers will have a better knowledge of the aircraft’s future trajectory by accessing information available in the aircraft systems.

Facts and Figures on Europe’s Traffic and Delays

• Average number of flights per day: 27,262
Peak (Sept. 10, 2004): 29,495
Total number of flights (September 2003-August 2004): 8,727,708

• Annual traffic growth rate expected from this year on: 3.6 percent
Top rates: 24 percent in Latvia; 21 percent in Slovakia; 19 percent in the Czech Republic; 18 percent in Estonia. (Poland was not included in these statistics.)
Traffic is expected to double by 2022

• Current average delay per flight (en route): 1.4 minutes
Current average delay per flight (all causes): 11.3 minutes

• Causes of delay:
Airlines: 54 percent
Airports: 17 percent
En route flow management: 15 percent
Weather: 6 percent
Security: 4 percent
Misc.: 4 percent

• Eurocontrol member states: Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine and the UK