As China grapples with worsening air traffic congestion problems, Boeing and other major aerospace companies are playing an increasingly important role, not just by introducing new air traffic control technology, but also by helping to improve airspace management, says a senior Boeing executive.

China’s flight delay problems already are serious enough, particularly in the country’s large eastern hubs. However, the problem could be exacerbated by the rapid growth that is forecast for China’s domestic air services. “Proposed growth far exceeds the current air traffic control capacity,” says Neil Planzer, Boeing’s vice president for air traffic management (ATM).

One facet of the delay issue is political, particularly regarding the 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 the creation of a ‘next-generation’ phase” of ATM, to prepare for projected growth, he says. As with other countries, “you can’t wait for growth to occur, and then say ‘okay, we want to change the system.’ You need to anticipate it.”

Class Work

One of the main ways Boeing has been helping lay the groundwork has been through running a series of classes for senior executives from China’s Air Traffic Management Bureau. 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 to 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,” says Planzer.

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

In addition to the ATM classes, Boeing also has 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 also will work with the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics on the development of an air traffic decision support system to optimize in-bound traffic flows at airports. This will help controllers determine the most efficient arrival sequences, says Boeing.

Primary Goal

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 areas where the company can most help is 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, says Planzer. Boeing recently has increased its ATM presence in China in preparation for an expanding role.

As well as the big-picture initiatives, Boeing also works on smaller support projects involving the aircraft it sells. One example is the development of required navigation performance (RNP) procedures at Wuyishan Airport for Boeing 737s operated by Xiamen Airlines, in conjunction with Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen.

Several companies are involved in installing RNP approaches in China. Planzer stresses that efforts like RNP are “perfect capabilities” for terrain-challenged airports in the west 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,” says Planzer.