It is widely accepted that there is tremendous growth potential in China's domestic air travel market. However, just as well-known are some of the air traffic management challenges that could hinder this expansion. China is increasingly looking to address these issues with the help of major international aerospace companies.

One goal is to boost air connectivity to cities in western China, and several companies have been involved in installing precision satellite-based approaches to increase the safety and reliability of services to airports in mountainous terrain. But in the eastern part of the country the problems are different—congestion and flight delays are becoming a major headache. And China is drawing on the expertise of Boeing and Airbus to address this challenge as well.

Neil Planzer, Boeing vice president for air traffic management, says the introduction of required navigation performance (RNP) approaches is an excellent solution for some airports in western China. However, it will do little for the delay problems in the busier airspace, particularly in the Beijing-Shanghai-Guangzhou triangle. Flight delays are bad enough now, but Planzer notes that “proposed growth far exceeds the current air traffic control capacity.”

One facet of the delay issue is political, particularly regarding military control of a large proportion of domestic airspace. Civilian use of airspace “has expanded a bit, but not enough,” Planzer says. China has “got some real political problems [regarding congestion] in addition to technical air traffic control problems.”

Foreign aerospace companies obviously cannot help on the political side, notes Planzer. “But where the Western countries can help is in the development and creation of a 'next-generation' phase” of air traffic management (ATM), he says, to prepare for projected growth.

As with other countries, “you can't wait for growth to occur, and then say 'OK, we want to change the system.' You need to anticipate it,” he says.

Boeing has been helping to lay the groundwork in part through holding classes for senior executives from China's Air Traffic Management Bureau (ATMB). One such course finished recently in Seattle and more will follow, says Planzer.

Participants learn how to “develop and execute ATM concepts and principles” in a strategic way, Planzer says. This will help instill a “core capability” to understand what the Chinese system needs and how to expand it. “We believe this is more important than [helping] design a particular piece of airspace.

“China likes to be self-sufficient—they want to bring in all the information they can and develop an internal capability to execute. Sometimes they do it with [foreign] companies, sometimes on their own.”

This has led to China signing many cooperation and advisory agreements with Western companies, “but these are really only helping them out on the fringes,” he notes.

At some point, Boeing will probably sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with China regarding ATM, Planzer says. “But we want to do something substantive with that,” he adds.

In addition to the ATM classes, Boeing has also launched a research initiative through the Boeing-Comac Technology Center in China, in conjunction with the Civil Aviation University of China. The aim is to forecast the 30-year capacity of China's airspace system, develop evaluation tools to predict trends and provide recommendations for improvements.

The Boeing-Comac center will also work with the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics on the development of an air traffic decision-support system to optimize inbound traffic flows at airports. This will help controllers determine the most efficient arrival sequences, says Boeing.

Planzer stresses that Boeing's primary motive in China regarding ATM is not to win contracts. Rather, it wants to ensure that the country has “an ATM system that can expand to handle the volume of [projected] traffic that will allow us to deliver the aircraft they have on back order.”

Boeing will not be attempting to sell China ATM technology, or bidding to overhaul its ATM system. The company can most help with “processes and procedures in the airspace they have, and in the airspace they anticipate,” says Planzer. Boeing can take the “aggregate view,” such as assessing the effect that increasing traffic at one airport will have on others in the system.

Chinese officials “seem to be indicating to us that they would like to [work] with us” on these issues, Planzer notes. Boeing has recently increased its ATM presence in China in preparation for an expanding role.

In addition to the big-picture initiatives, Boeing also works on smaller support projects involving the aircraft it sells. One example is the development of RNP procedures at Wuyishan Airport for Boeing 737s operated by Xiamen Airlines, in conjunction with Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen.

Planzer stresses that efforts such as RNP are “perfect capabilities” for terrain-challenged airports in western China and other parts of country. However, this does not reduce congestion at the large eastern hubs. “Over the next decade, I think we're going see them focusing more on that problem,” he says.

Airbus, meanwhile, is also heavily involved in China. The manufacturer early this month signed a new MOU that will help the ATMB determine its next steps in key facets of ATM.

Four projects will begin this year. They will involve air traffic flow management (ATFM), airport collaborative decision-making (CDM), instrument landing systems (ILS) at Beijing Capital International Airport and performance-based navigation and capacity assessment at Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport.

At the MOU signing, ATMB Director General Wang Liya said these projects will “pave the way for a broader cooperation between us and Airbus in the future.” They will also “help us draw on the experience of other regions to develop our future ATM systems, which will be more integrated with global systems,” Wang added.

Much of the work will be conducted by Airbus ProSky, the manufacturer's ATM unit. The MOU covers several deliverables, but Airbus is not revealing contract details or specific timetables.

The aim of the ATFM component is to set up a functional prototype system, an Airbus ProSky spokeswoman says. This will allow the Chinese agency to evaluate ATFM and determine what data and interfaces it will require.

ATFM is a centralized function that is intended to increase the efficiency of the broader network. This will essentially be a demonstration system and will combine off-the-shelf products and elements engineered specifically for the project.

The airport CDM component of the MOU is aimed at bringing a wider range of stakeholders—including airlines—into planning and operational decisions. Airbus will work with the ATMB to analyze what procedures and functions are required. U.S. and European systems will be examined to evaluate best practices.

Airbus will likely recommend the type of system that will best suit the ATMB's needs. This could be used as a reference to harmonize CDM at multiple airports, including coordination with centralized flow management.

At the Beijing airport, Airbus ProSky will be using its exact landing interference simulation environment (Elise) system to analyze the airport's ILS system. Elise is used to map ILS signals and model interference patterns. It can help optimize ILS systems and ensure that new construction can be as close as possible to runways without causing ILS interference.

The Beijing deployment of Elise will be a pilot project, to assess the reliability and accuracy of the system. This will help the ATMB determine at which other airports it needs to be used.

Airbus will be doing work at the Chengdu airport to help increase efficiency and improve capacity. This includes a performance-based navigation (PBN) initiative, with Airbus providing technical and operational support to create new procedures. The project will link an RNP approach to a runway ILS.

At Chengdu, Airbus will be drawing on the PBN expertise of Quovadis, which is one of the companies in the Airbus ProSky group. Quovadis recently completed a separate PBN project at China's Zhangjiajie Airport, which included an RNP-to-ILS procedure.

Other aerospace companies are also involved in various PBN projects in China. GE Aviation has helped install RNP approaches at several Chinese airports in recent years, working with most of the major airlines. In many cases these procedures have dramatically expanded access to airports that have terrain and weather constraints.

GE says it designed the first RNP-to-ILS procedure in China, at Xichang Qingshan Airport, about 200 mi. south of Chengdu. It is now expanding this procedure to other airports.

Contributing to congestion in Chinese airspace are horizontal separation standards that are significantly higher than in other countries, including the U.S. However, a trial is underway in China's northeast to reduce these separation minimums, says Brian Davis, Honeywell vice president for Asia-Pacific air transport business.

“More airspace allocation from the military” would also help reduce delays, says Davis. But he notes that “there is a certain amount of efficiency that can be gained from the aircraft and the infrastructure. There is a lot of low-hanging fruit.”

Honeywell and the ATMB are working on installing a satellite-based landing aid known as a ground-based augmentation system. The first Chinese airport at which this will be installed should be named within a month, Davis says.

China is making good progress with RNP approaches at airports, but these are generally to improve safety rather than to boost capacity, says Davis. Using RNP on air routes would allow aircraft to be kept closer together and, to the satisfaction of the air force, would be much less likely to wander into military airspace.

With Bradley Perrett in Beijing.