Navigating the skies

Innovative solutions are helping airlines deal with the challenges stemming from outdated Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems.

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Innovative solutions are helping airlines deal with the challenges stemming from outdated Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems.

The Middle East isn’t only home to some of the world’s leading airlines, such as Etihad Airways and Emirates; it is also home to some of the busiest skies. As its fast-growing airlines nurture global ambitions and invest in expanding their fleets, the region’s airspace has never been more crowded.

With the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) predicting that Middle East traffic will grow at an annual rate of 5.2% through 2030 and Boeing’s Current Market Outlook forecasting demand for an additional 2,610 aircraft in the region over the next 20 years, it will be critically important to address the challenges that will inevitably arise.
Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems around the world have struggled to keep pace with the extraordinary growth in air traffic. Consequently, we see airlines struggling to deal with air traffic congestion, which has a direct impact on the industry’s environmental footprint and on profitability.

Looking at the numbers, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), every minute of wasted flying time accounts for 62l of fuel consumption and 160kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. IATA estimates that this has led to 73m tonnes of CO2 emissions and nearly $13.5bn in wasted costs.

But there are innovative solutions being adopted in a concerted effort to address the challenges that stem from outdated and inefficient ATMs.

At a macro level, Collaborative Decision Making (CDM) tools are being advocated as a long-term response to inefficiencies caused by the absence of a cohesive, multi-country approach to ATM. By deploying CDM tools, airports, airlines and other stakeholders will have shared access to data allowing for more informed decision making, leading to improved airspace management.

The industry is also taking a fresh look at the current routing system, which, in most instances, allows airlines to fly fixed routes from origin to destination, with little to no flexibility offered to compensate for changing conditions such as winds. These systems date back to the early days of aviation, when airplanes did not possess the navigational capabilities that they do today and Air Traffic Services (ATS) faced challenges in terms of flight management and communication. Additionally, demarcation of airspace for military and civil use has traditionally been non-negotiable as national security takes obvious precedence over airline operations.

While the technologies have evolved and some militaries have become more flexible about sharing air space with civilian aircraft, the route systems have largely remained unchanged, and this is a disadvantage to our industry.
For example, an airplane flying from Dubai to New York will, in most instances, have to follow a pre-determined route regardless of wind conditions. If the airplane’s pilots are allowed to make course corrections en route in order to benefit from changing high-altitude jet-stream wind conditions, this will have a positive influence on fuel burn, improving operating efficiencies and reducing carbon emissions in the process. Early studies revealed that flexible routing could cut flight times by six minutes, reduce fuel burn by 2% and save 3,000kg of CO2 emissions on a 10-hour intercontinental flight.

This system of optimising flight operations using flexible routing is currently offered by Airservices Australia and the Indian Ocean Strategic Partnership to Reduce Emissions (INSPIRE), both of which count Emirates as a partner, and the results have been remarkable. In one year, Emirates analysed data on eastbound, long haul flights and found that the programme saved 628 tonnes of fuel and 57 hours in trip time over the same period. This means that, on average, the airline saved six minutes of trip time for every flight, and one tonne of fuel.

The effort of the aviation industry underscores the importance of having effective ATM systems in place. While hidden away from the public eye, ATM plays a critical role in helping the airline industry take flight.

Neil Planzer is VP, Airspace Solutions & ATM, Boeing

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