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Back to the Future

Back to the Future

I love to read about the future of Air Traffic Management (ATM). It is a melting pot of futuristic technologies and aviation wish lists.

I love to read how the future will deliver a safer more improved service, full of efficient decision making, catering for all users with equity and diversity. While my opening statement could be read with some cynicism, I am generally fascinated by the promises that the future will deliver. I am fortunate to have started young in the ATC game- straight from school. This has afforded me the opportunity to gain many years of experience while still being of youthful (!) age. The point I’m making is that I will be here (and hopefully a part of) establishing the future of ATM in Australia.

ATM in Australia is not at breaking point. Sydney airport does have some capacity issues and certainly provides some discomfort for its passengers but even Sydney can’t compete with the movements of airports such as Heathrow. The challenge for Australia is to take what constraints we have in our system and remove (or manage) them. This essentially relates to two major items. The only major hub we have in Australia is Sydney. The challenge is to create an environment that manages delays and provides optimum flight trajectories for aircraft using this hub. The effect from improving these operations will flow through to other ports. The environmental and political complexity of any change to Sydney will create a solid base for changes to other city operations. Secondly, we must allow all flights (in our airspace above FL290) to fly preferred, optimum paths. Both are enormous challenges and need advanced ATM automation, cultural changes and joint stakeholder participation.

The reality is that, despite the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and swine flu, traffic will increase. We will always have moments in society that change (or reduce) the landscape we are operating in – what history has shown is that we bounce back and often quickly and with substantial increase. Growth predictions from ICAO/IATA have changed since the GFC. Slower growth is predicted – but as consumer confidence grows this will be re-adjusted up accordingly. Even if rates are similar to the last 10 years our ATM systems will not cope.

I am certainly not an authority on airport infrastructure, but it is not just our ATM system (aircraft/ATC) that won’t cope with all this predicted growth. Our airport infrastructure will need new methods and systems to greatly improve the time spent in checking-in/security/boarding. If Europe’s prediction of 20.4 million flights by 2030 is accurate then the corresponding passenger number increase will create significant problems. If ATM improves predictability and micro-manages delays it will require airports and airlines to improve their processes.

Anyone that has travelled through Heathrow or Gatwick has spent considerable time in both checking-in and security queues. The time involved in just getting to these airports can be significant. Certainly public transport is the future for minimal on-airport delay. Off site parking with high speed links, even secure environments that commence with boarding these high speed links would enable an efficient transition onto the aircraft.

I often imagine if fully optimised departure and arrival trajectories supported by efficient management of all ATM constraints (including convective weather) is possible without significant structure. Will future ATM be similar to our train networks? Defined paths, dependable departure/arrival times, all weather operations, safe and secure spacing and, when an increase in demand is required, more carriages and more services are added.

Larger aircraft such as an A380-full economy mode will still only require one landing slot but could shift four times the number of passengers a standard B737 will. Processing that many passengers from one flight would certainly pose a few problems. One issue that comes to mind immediately is how long would it take to process your luggage? Most luggage carousels would not mange that volume of people attempting to locate their bags – so will two carousels be used? How will you know which one is circulating your bag? While solutions are surely available, they are equally important to the questions being asked of future ATM.

The road maps of Europe and USA in managing these issues are different but have similar goals: reduce delays, improve predictability, increase capacity and, most importantly, do this with an increase in safety. The figures that are quoted from Single European Sky ATM Research Joint Undertaking (SESAR JU – charged with ensuring the modernisation of the European air traffic management system by co-ordinating and concentrating all relevant research and development efforts in the Community) are bold – which makes the next few years very exciting! They state: three times capacity increase; ten times safety improvement; environmental impact of flight 10% reduction; ATM costs – 50% reduction. Wow, all in this relates to, on average per flight, a saving of 8 to 14 minutes, 300 to 500 kg of fuel and 945 to 1575 kg of CO2.

In Australia we need to determine exactly what we expect to improve. I have written many times about the individual projects that Airservices Australia is working on – all of which will improve our service. The measurement of our improvement is very important and we need to set accurate goals to strive for. Whether modernising our ATM automation platform or improving our internal functionality or procedures – we need measurable, attainable goals.

Many aviation professionals have provided commentary on the aggressive goals of the SESAR-JU. I am in awe of the challenge that has been set and am equally in awe of their plans and decisions so far. Reducing the effect on the environment and improving our service to the industry are strong commitments of the aviation leaders in Australia. What we need is a strong commitment by industry and bold leadership to achieve those goals.

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