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Charting the Flow

Charting the Flow

In Australia the least talked about component of Air Traffic Management (ATM) is Air Traffic Flow Management (ATFM). While it may not be a regular topic of discussion in the ATC corridors, this process is intrinsically involved in the daily operation of the Australian and international aviation industry.

When we talk about flow management in Australia, most of us conjure up images of dark rooms and terminal ATC using arcane skills to create conga lines of aircraft landing at their destinations.

At Brisbane Centre, there are two signs posted above the Flow controller’s workstation. One defines a, ‘Flow as a noun; a person or device performing the Flow function and, as a verb, a ‘black art in which as many aircraft as possible are arranged to arrive on final approach at the same time.’ The other sign defines Flow Control as, ‘a game played by mysterious individuals with authority over everyone. The game has no rules and no one knows how it is really played but the goal is to prevent passengers from making connections on time.’

This last definition of course, is outrageously inaccurate: every Flow Controller knows the rules!

Around the world ATFM is a core component of ATM providing mechanisms by which the demand for airports, military airspace, air routes, and sector volumes is managed to meet the capacity of the system.

Globally, ATFM is delivered in a multitude of ways and in very different timeframes. In Europe, where airborne traffic congestion is significant, Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP) involvement in the planning of aircraft operations begins in the strategic time frame; up to a year before the aircraft actually leaves the departure gate. In North America, where airborne and airport congestion is a major issue, ANSP planning commences around six months before the day of operation.

In both cases, the planning continues, reaching greater and greater levels of detail until the day of operation when actual operating times are assigned to aircraft that are specifically designed to balance demand against capacity. The final goal is to reduce network disruption to manageable levels.

Many Australian air traffic controllers would even be surprised to learn that Airservices employs an ATFM system. The Central Traffic Management System (CTMS) runs in parallel with our automation system (Eurocat) to manage the demand for Sydney airport. It monitors both scheduled operations planning to fly into Sydney, as well as the airport’s capacity, to develop a picture of the airport’s capacity to meet demand.

Each evening at 6pm, suggested departure times are issued to airlines and other operators which are designed to transfer airborne delay into less expensive ground delay. At regular intervals, representatives from airlines, airports and Airservices meet to review the performance of the system.

A key component to demand and capacity balancing is Collaborative Decision Making (CDM). This is more than just the sharing of information; it is the sharing of the ‘decisions’ in a way that benefit all users of the airways system – from ANSP through to airlines, airport owners and General Aviation (GA) pilots.

Global aviation is moving rapidly in this area. CDM is recognised as a key element in the European Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) and FAA Next Generation (NextGen) ATM systems.

At Airservices Australia, positioning the business to be able to integrate and develop these concepts has led in part to the implementation of Service Delivery Environment (SDE) concepts, as well as the continuing development of the National Operations Centre (NOC). The NOC provides Airservices with a centralised platform capable of delivering ATFM in a collaborative environment.

Individual dialogues are vital in developing concepts and sharing ideas which have recognised that the prevailing thinking from the ICAO is that, where ATFM procedures are implemented, they should be implemented regionally. This certainly meets the needs of the many Airservices’ customers who don’t operate exclusively within the domain of a single ANSP.

Since the last big ATC conference, Airservices has now developed:

  • Integrated Flow Manager (IFM) system which is now in operational commissioning;
  • National Operations Overview (NOO) which is now published on our internal and external web sites;
  • Coordinated Routes concept which we have employed to assist in managing airspace which becomes temporarily unavailable.

The next big ATFM conference is when global experts will come to discuss all aspects of ATFM on a global basis. Perhaps one day, all this information sharing will lead to another sign above the console of the Flow controller in Brisbane: “Flow; getting people where they want to go with the minimum disruption necessary” – but I doubt it!

Matt Shepherd is an ATM optimisation manager. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of Airservices Australia.

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