Europe on Schedule with Planned RPL Phaseout

 - September 9, 2019, 12:20 PM

Eurocontrol’s network manager operations center will stop processing repetitive flight plans (RPLs) from the end of March next year, after deeming them less relevant given the dynamic nature of today’s ATM network and a dwindling number of airlines that use them.

While ten years ago some 40 percent of commercial flights in Europe and most of the continent’s large operators (including Air France, Ryanair, and EasyJet) filed RPLs, the number has gradually and significantly declined to approximately 3 percent now. Only 23 airlines still adhere to submitting RPLs twice a year, covering their schedules per IATA season. Of those, 21 are small airlines—some of them operating just two to three flights a week—and two are midsized airlines, Air France’s regional subsidiary HOP and Aeroflot. Jointly accounting for 65 percent of RPLs in Europe, both airlines now plan to follow their peers and switch to commercial flight-planning and navigation solutions providers, such as Lufthansa Systems and Jeppesen.

“RPLs have served airlines’ needs well in the past. However, the ‘file-and-forget’ principle of an RPL and the concept of filing a flight plan on a route six months earlier than flying that route simply does not fit in the dynamic network we have in Europe now,” Andy Woollin, flight planning domain manager at Eurocontrol, told AIN. For instance, military airspace does not open for commercial traffic months in advance, often rendering RPL routes less direct. “RPL routes are potentially not the most direct routes and less cost-efficient—and causing more CO2 emissions—than daily flight plans, which benefit from the flexible use of airspace (FUA) concept that ensures that any airspace segregation is temporary and based on real use for a specified time period,” said Woollin.   

Defined in ICAO’s PANS-ATM (Procedures for Navigation Services – Air Traffic Management) document 4444, RPL serves as an ICAO procedure used around the world. The organization introduced it to reduce the workload of airline operators, pilots, and controllers, as well as to accommodate the loading of the aeronautical fixed Telecommunication Network (AFTN). More and more countries, however, have ended the provision of the RPL service; Singapore, for instance, did it in 2014 and Malaysia in January this year.

“I can imagine that in a few years’ time ICAO will replace RPL with a more dynamic solution,” Woollin asserted. “I see no place for RPL in ICAO’s Flight and Flow Information for a Collaborative Environment (FF-ICE) concept to support future ATM operations and cope with the worldwide growth in air traffic demand.”

Moreover, RPL in its current format cannot meet the critical information demands of the ICAO CNS/ATM system and the implementation of advanced navigation specifications and new surveillance systems. “With the termination of the RPL service, airline operators will be required to file individual flight plans for each flight,” Woollin explained. “This will ensure that essential information such as aircraft registration, the 24-bit aircraft identification code, capability and status of on-board communication, navigation, and surveillance equipment, etcetera, are all provided to the Eurocontrol Network Manager Integrated Initial Flight Plan Processing System (IFPS) for distribution to the air traffic service unit.”

Eurocontrol discussed the intent to gradually do away with RPL across the FIRs of its 41 member states with ICAO in Montreal. “They raised no objection although they asked to give airspace users sufficient time to put in place alternative solutions. ICAO also commented that it can be considered as a stepping stone towards trajectory-based operations,” Woollin said while noting that Eurocontrol reviewed the plan with airlines and IATA. Airlines support the decision, he affirmed.  “Airlines asked us why Eurocontrol was still providing a service and why they had to pay for a service that only a minority of airlines used.”  

The Brussels-based intergovernmental body started actively communicating the removal of RPL several months ago, and all 23 airlines concerned have received a letter. “I don’t expect problems from it, but we might get some questions from some airlines at the start of the year,” Woollin concluded.