If you've ever sat in a stack above a congested airport after a long-haul flight and waited an hour for a landing slot to become clear, you could be forgiven for wondering what the air traffic controllers were doing. The truth is, however, they manage a frightening amount of traffic, using outdated systems that are stretched to their limits.
Despite a recent drop-off in air traffic, hot-spots throughout Europe and the US are still putting a strain on the systems and controllers. But a groundswell of opinion that 21st-century technological advancements aren't being reflected in air traffic management (ATM) systems is leading to investment and change in the industry.
This resulted in a busy 2008 on both sides of the Atlantic, as discussions started to result in tangible progress. "It wasn't about identifying anything that was wrong with the system – we are incredibly safe and manage a tremendous amount of traffic. But we were not able to meet the demand we were seeing and this put an economic constraint on the viability of the aviation sector," says Vicki Cox, director of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
To tackle this problem, FAA is now fully underway with its NextGen initiative aimed at transforming the US National Airspace System. One of its priorities is to increase communication and surveillance efforts – a concern reflected in Europe's new action group, single European sky ATM research (SESAR). Unlike the US, which has a single air navigation service provider (ANSP), the control of Europe's skies is very fragmented. The inauguration of SESAR, on 8 December 2008, was intended to bring to fruition the European Commission's plans for a cohesive modernisation of ATM systems throughout the EU. And, communication was top of its list.
"One of the oldest technologies we use in our field is in communications. Air traffic controllers and pilots still have to communicate through radio. This is a technology dating back to the 1940s and it has to be replaced urgently," said Patrick Ky, executive director of SESAR.
Ky has an annual budget of €300m with which to improve communications and complete a host of other objectives over the next five years. Funded by the European Commission and EUROCONTROL, the joint undertaking also involves major commercial firms including Thales and Airbus.
As SESAR begins in earnest, some of NextGen's key transformational programmes are already being deployed. The first to take shape was its ADS-B programme. The FAA identified early that surveillance systems would need to be upgraded and become more integrated. ADS-B provides accurate and more comprehensive surveillance information via a broadcast communication link. Alongside this is its system-wide information management (SWIM) initiative.
"This is a network enabled approach to information sharing. Today our systems can communicate with each other on a point-to-point basis. SWIM establishes a platform where broad information can be shared and the common situational awareness in the system can be increased," says Cox.
Step by step
Such a top-down approach isn't the only way to ensure modernisation. Together, the ANSPs of Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Ireland have come together to form COOPANS with the aim of harmonising their existing Thales Eurocat ATM systems. "The idea is for the four of us to have a common, absolutely identical air traffic management system by 2012. In my opinion that is more than what is being done in other projects as we are making progress in small, tangible chunks," says Eamonn Brennan, chief executive of the Republic of Ireland's ASAP, the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA).
The system will go live in Ireland in January 2011, Sweden in November 2010, Denmark towards the end of 2011 and Austria in mid-2012. Brennan says he finds it hard to subscribe to grandiose schemes that are many years away from implementation but instead promotes smaller initiatives that can have a more immediate impact. "SESAR is a very ambitious project and there is no doubt that it is very important but it needs to be delivered in small sections. What I don't support is a grand vision that may never be realised."
The formation of a single European ANSP would be the ultimate efficiency, in Brennan's opinion, to mirror the US structure. For now, however, that doesn't appear to be on the EU agenda or in common discourse, although the ATC Global conference in Amsterdam this March will provide an opportunity for open discussion between SESAR, FAA and independent ANSPs.
A further initiative that the IAA is due to complete very soon is a reshuffle of its National Airspace Organisation, which has so far included the formation of a functional airspace block (FAB) with the UK. The single European sky programme was a major driver for the implementation of FABs throughout Europe but the Republic of Ireland and UK joint venture is the only formal union so far. "It was formed to create efficiencies, create faster flight times, streamline transitions and handle the traffic coming out of the Atlantic more efficiently," says Brennan.
Whatever the approach, it is clear that those in the industry have a common goal – creating environmental and economic efficiencies to increase the potential of the aviation market. For this to happen, there is a push for harmonisation of technology between aircraft and ground bases as well as between geographical areas. "If investment in aircraft isn't matched with equivalent technology at an airport then it is useless, so it needs to be synchronised," says Ky.
To increase international cooperation, FAA is hoping to launch transatlantic projects. "We have been working very closely with SESAR and we are hoping to do some projects in the transatlantic area. This will involve the sharing of data and a demonstration of NextGen capabilities to assess things like fuel savings," says Cox.
After a drop-off in passenger numbers throughout last year and early 2009 – reaching 9% in the first two weeks of Q1 traffic entering Dublin, Ireland – predictions are that volumes will rise again as global economies rebound. As they do, air traffic controllers will be faced with the task of handling new technology. "I think it will be a different set of skills. I don't think air traffic controllers will be doing the same kind of job because there is going to be more reliance on airborne systems. The interaction between the aircraft and the ground system is going to be far more automated," says Brennan.
The need for modernisation is now fully understood – it has the full support of the industry and is a bipartisan issue between varying political parties. The task now is to make the most of budgets, conduct worthwhile R&D and produce effective technologies. As purse strings remain tight and environmental concerns rise, the air traffic management industry needs to prove it can adapt to new technologies and cater for the predicted rise in traffic.