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IT Last modified on December 9, 2009

The quiet revolution

Oliver Clark takes a closer look at pioneering European and US initiatives to ease congestion in the skies.

Eurocontrol is in no doubt that an air traffic capacity crisis is looming that threatens to overwhelm Europe’s current traffic system and airports by 2025, unless drastic action is taken.

Indeed, its stark warning, first issued in 2001 and repeated again in the 2004 and 2008 editions of its Challenges of Growth report, describes several growth scenarios, the most likely being that flights will exceed capacity limits by 0.9 million in 2025 and 2.3 million by 2030, costing the industry an estimated €90 billion a year.

Either way, the volume of traffic will increase two-fold between now and 2030 meaning that congestion will rapidly increase and 19 of Europe’s biggest airports will be designated as highly congested due to them operating at full capacity for a third of each day by 2030.

In the US, the FAA’s 2007 Future Airport Capacity Task (FACT) II study found that even if all currently planned airport expansion plans go ahead, six airports, including New York LaGuardia, Oakland and Philadelphia, will face capacity challenges by 2015 and grow to 14 airports by 2025.

Such is the crisis that ACI NA president, Greg Principato, told a House of Representatives’ transport committee on aviation that “airport capital needs are growing and we must act now if we are to meet the future demands of the system”.

It is a depressing outlook, but on both sides of the Atlantic two ambitious reform programmes are being developed to introduce a ‘paradigm shift’ in air traffic management and operations, which it is hoped will ensure more efficient use of the skies and reduce delays.

Eurocontrol and the European Commission are co-ordinating what is arguably the largest engineering project in Europe, the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) Joint Undertaking.

The technical arm of the Single European Sky (SES) initiative, SESAR is being implemented by a joint consortium of 30 members led by Eurocontrol and is tasked with completely restructuring Europe’s fragmented airspace, upgrading existing ATC infrastructure and procedures to increase capacity three times on 2005 levels.

“There will be enough capacity in 2017, but if we look at 2030 there will be a lot of demand we cannot accommodate,” says Bo Redeborn, Eurocontrol’s director of co-operative network design.

“One of the principal objectives is therefore to achieve a 73% increase in capacity. I am confident that this will be delivered. That figure is a network figure, composed of new efficiencies, new procedures and technologies, from recent experience and long-term statistics, this will be unevenly distributed, we will need to do better than that figure in some parts of Europe and less in others,” he says.

SESAR is currently in the development phase (2008-2016) and new technologies, such as satellite-based navigation and Europe’s GPS Galileo are in advanced testing. Ground-based surveillance will still be maintained as a backup for safety reasons.

From the airports’ perspective, capacity pressures are a significant challenge, causing congestion and bottlenecks at take-off and landing and gates under used.

Eurocontrol predicts that current airport expansion plans will only add 41% of the capacity needed and the rest will have to come from two sources: shifting traffic from hubs to regional gateways and efficiencies squeezed out of ATC and operations.

A key project is Airport Collaborative Decision-Making (A-CDM), a joint initiative launched in October 2008 by Eurocontrol and ACI Europe, to share key operations data, such as landing times and turnarounds, between the airport and its stakeholders in order to achieve greater coordination and efficiencies.

Results from participating airports have been encouraging with potential sector capacity increases of 4%, or between one and two aircraft per airspace sector predicted across Europe. The original aim was to have 40 airports signed up by June 2009 and this has been expanded to 60 airports by the end of 2010.

Europe’s patchwork of national airspaces are being replaced with functional air blocks (FABS) based on the most rational flight paths, and direct routes. Negotiation is leading to commercial use of military flight zones, although progress is slow.

Shared data will also allow the introduction of ‘business trajectories’ to allow airlines and air traffic controllers that share information to map the optimal route for an aircraft to take in terms of distance and fuel burn, the ultimate aim being to allow airlines to plan their own routes.

Poor visibility caused by rain, fog and snow grounds countless aircraft each year or at best slows down operations and this is a significant challenge for SESAR.

To solve the problem, new navigational equipage levels are planned, including Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B), a system whereby satellite-enabled aircraft can determine its own position using GPS and better en-route queue management.

According to Redeborn, Eurocontrol’s Advanced Surface Movement & Guidance Control System (A-SMGCS) will also be enhanced under SESAR, initially for use by air traffic control towers, but with the potential for being data-linked to the cockpit as well.

“The idea is to reduce the workload of the air traffic controller and the number of conflict situations they face. The human is still in the loop but SESAR is a tool to help them do their job better,” he says.

One area where SESAR is making a visible difference is in runway approach where the introduction of the Continuous Descent Approach (CDA), a process whereby aircraft take their optimal descent profile to the runway, is reaping rewards.

CDA is already in operation at several hub airports, including Paris CDG and Heathrow and, if introduced at between 50 and 100 airports across Europe, will save an estimated 150,000 tonnes of fuel and €100 million a year.

Head of air traffic control at UK-based NATS Services Ltd, Juliet Kennedy, has no doubt that SESAR is the future for Europe, but is under no illusion at the size of the task ahead.

“What are the aims of SESAR? To increase current capacity by up to three times, improve safety and cut CO2 emissions,” says Kennedy. “There are, however, many challenges and one of the key issues is the need to design a system that is resilient.

“Airports ultimately want an increase in capacity regardless of the economic situation, what we need to do is get the balance right between delivering that increase and producing a system that keeps working during bad weather as the costs when this happens can be enormous for airlines. Another overarching concern is maintaining safety standards.”

So how much progress has been made? Redeborn believes the Eurocontrol consortium has achieved 15-20% of implementation so far and this could accelerate once it enters the deployment phase (2013-2020).

In the US, NextGen will be implemented in stages between 2012 and 2025, with a shift from ground-based to satellite navigation, voice to digital communication and moving from a disunited weather forecast delivery system to one source. The weather causes 25% of delays in the US but by 2018 NextGen will reduce this by 35-40%.

Capacity enhancements will be derived from three core avionic advancements in the mid-term 2012-18: Area Navigation (RNAV) and Required Navigation Performance (RNP), which will allow multiple departures from a single runway and reduced separation standards. ASDB and ASDE-X will provide real time surface traffic information for airlines and multilateration-based surface monitoring at congested airports.

Much is being achieved now through the FAA’s High-Density Terminal and Airport Operations initiative, a programme to provide high-density corridors at busy airports to allow controllers to introduce trajectory-based operations, similar to Europe’s business trajectories.

Approaching aircraft receive 4D trajectory profiles and arriving traffic conduct tighter spacing and merging procedures, parallel runway procedures will be conducted along with precision and low visibility landings.

Examples include HAATS, a three-phase plan to address local traffic increases in the Houston area. It means that at busy times controllers can now divert flights headed to Houston from the northeast onto two routes; one for smaller aircraft and turboprops, the other for larger aircraft.

One change NextGen will bring in a bid to reduce weather caused delays is a shift from a disparate and fragmented meteorological forecast delivery system to a national network centric service.

Known as the 4D Weather Cube, it will house traditional weather information in four spatial dimensions latitude, longitude, and altitude and time and act as a super data hub and resource for air traffic decision-making.

Just like SESAR, the development of more precise routings and shared information between all parties involved is key and ADS-B ground equipment is to be installed across the US National Airspace System (NAS) by 2013.

A goal for both NextGen and SESAR is that their respective systems should be interoperable with one another and other international traffic systems, and this is well illustrated by the examples of Canada and Iceland.

“As it turns out we control 85% of the traffic between the US and Europe, which equates to something like 1,200 to 1,300 tracks across the Atlantic, so we really are in the middle and we work closely with our partners at the FAA and NATS to provide the best possible coverage,” says Sid Koslow, Nav Canada’s vice president and chief technology officer.

Nav Canada became one of the first air navigation service providers (ANSPs) to introduce ADS-B zones; the first established over the Hudson Bay in January 2009, which it is predicted will save airlines C$195 million between 2009 and 2016. ADS-B is now being extended across Canada’s East coast, to Greenland and the Arctic Circle in stages up to 2010.

“Currently 425 aircraft from 16 airlines are equipped to utilise ADS-B in the Hudson Bay airspace. This represents almost half of all aircraft using the airspace and we anticipate that equipage levels will continue to progress, exceeding 80% by the end of 2010,” says Koslow.

Other efficiencies include the introduction of Converging Runways Display Aid (CRDA) at Calgary Airport, to increase airport capacity by allowing controllers to space aircraft on converging approaches.

As the global recession subsides and traffic begins to return, capacity issues will become a pressing issue once more, but in SESAR and NextGen, Europe and the US have mapped out a new generation of ATC systems that is designed to manage growth well into the coming decades.

Airport World 2009 - Issue 6

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