Europe Presses Ahead With Modernizing Air Traffic Management

control room center
New equipment in control centers should help implement concepts such as data link and free-route airspace.
Credit: Thales

The renovation of European air traffic management is progressing steadily—but with shifted priorities. The promoters of the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research project, supported by air navigation service providers, have managed to maintain budgets despite the COVID-19 crisis.

  • Investment plans remain stable despite pandemic crisis
  • Environmental progress takes priority over airspace capacity

“Long-term plans are still there; a positive mindset has survived the crisis to keep the ball rolling,” says Nicolas Warinsko, general manager of the Single European Sky Research (SESAR) Deployment Manager organization, which is in charge of implementing air traffic management (ATM) improvement plans.

When the crisis hit, 144 projects under SESAR’s deployment framework—such as streamlining approach trajectories at a given major hub airport—had been put in place. That number then stopped increasing. “Late in August, we restarted counting—the total of 151 projects completed as of Sept. 30 was a good signal,” Warinsko says.

SESAR includes 343 deployment projects, worth €2.9 billion ($3.4 billion). To keep up the momentum, faster distribution of the European Commission’s €1.3 billion financial support is being discussed. After that, the next phase of the “Connecting Europe Facility” funding instrument will fill out new budgets for 2021-27.

The goal is to maintain stakeholder motivation. “We operate in a regulated environment; European law requires from stakeholders that they make a certain level of investment by a certain date,” Warinsko says. “But the best way to incentivize them is to demonstrate their investment will bring end users and themselves benefits.”

To that end, the SESAR Deployment Manager has created a performance database showing the rewards from completed projects, quantifying the results and accompanying forecasts.

Airspace capacity will be needed again at some point. But increasing capacity will not be an issue for the next 2-3 years, predicts Warinsko. Until 2023-24, depending on estimates, air traffic will be nowhere near 2019 levels.

The greening of aviation is taking priority. “If people resume flying, they will be more careful about their environmental footprint,” Warinsko says.

When the coronavirus crisis started, the SESAR Deployment Manager was completing a revision of the Pilot Common Project, its regulatory framework. “We took the chance to fine-tune the final phase of the revision. We emphasized the goal of greener air transport,” Warinsko says. In addition, more time was provided for project implementation, to keep programs in line with funding capacities.

Making commercial aviation more environmentally friendly also has been a growing concern recently at France’s air navigation service provider, the Air Navigation Services Directorate (DSNA).

One of the first consequences of the pandemic was the urgent need for business continuity and recovery plans, says Philippe Barnola, the DSNA’s deputy director for strategic planning. Air traffic control towers and en route centers still needed to be staffed, even with slower traffic, and the crisis also entailed health and safety measures.

Cash flow was another important consideration. Airlines were allowed to suspend navigation service fee payments. The DSNA had to request parliamentary approval to raise a loan. But critical system maintenance must be secured, Barnola points out. Nevertheless, the priority of creating greener aviation has been reinforced, he says: “There is a strong expectation that the recovery should be green.”

In the DSNA’s jurisdiction, free-route airspace, a concept under which flight crews choose their preferred routes in a relaxed framework, was to be first deployed at the Brest en route control center in 2022. “We are trying to bring this forward to 2021 to meet the demand for environmental performance,” Barnola says.

Most of the DSNA’s modernization plan takes place within SESAR’s framework, he notes.

Moving in the same direction as free routes, toward more streamlined traffic, is the “PBN-to-ILS” project. Already in use—with further enhancements planned—at Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) Airport, it takes advantage of satellite guidance, also known as performance-based navigation (PBN), in lieu of the less accurate radar vectoring. The aircraft relies on satellite-aided positioning until it catches the instrument landing system’s (ILS) guidance to the runway.

As a result, continuous descent approaches should become the norm at CDG by 2023. Live trials, involving real traffic, will begin early next year, Barnola says. PBN-to-ILS enables simultaneous approaches on a pair of runways, even if they are close to each other, which is the case at CDG. “Thanks to the greater accuracy of flightpaths, you no longer have to maintain a 1,000-ft. vertical separation,” Barnola stresses.

Continuous descent approaches have a reduced noise footprint and also result in lower aircraft fuel burn.

Two other key technologies that can improve ATM at the Europe-wide level are data link (the transmission of data instead of voice communications between the crew and controllers) and automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), where aircraft broadcast their position.

Data link, which connects aircraft to the ground, is a crucial piece of the full SESAR concept. “The use of data link is growing,” Warinsko says. He credits his organization as having played a major role in accelerating data link system deployment since 2017, when the program was “in a bad shape.”

However, neither the air nor the ground segments have reached full implementation. Some 75% of the target fleet has been equipped with data link systems, although the deadline was February 2020, Warinsko says. The target fleet excludes aircraft that fly below the affected airspace as well as those being phased out.

On the ground, at air traffic control centers, the data link implementation deadline was February 2018. Some countries, such as France, are lagging. That country poses a double problem because of its relatively large size and geographical position.

Of the five information regions covering France, three are not providing full data link service, Warinsko says. The delay is a consequence of the slow implementation of the 4-Flight information system for en route control centers, because data link is embedded in that system, he notes.

Supplied by Thales to the DSNA, 4-Flight is described as a new-generation stripless control system for high-density airspace. It is said to incorporate advanced flight data processing, an augmented user interface and an advanced simulation environment.

Barnola contends that 4-Flight and data link are independent but acknowledges the delay. Data link will be deployed in the remaining three centers next year, as per a catch-up plan agreed on in 2018 with the European Commission, he says.

Warinsko was happy to see the DSNA’s positive reaction to that plan. He says the SESAR Deployment Manager is supporting the DSNA but insists full data link capability is needed by the summer of 2021. The difference of opinion is real but small and seems to be resolving, a common situation in EU projects the past few years.

As for ADS-B, 80% of the target fleet is now equipped. “Airlines were reluctant to invest because they were uncertain about the ground segment,” Warinsko says. Just as with data link, he believes the SESAR Deployment Manager has successfully put the process back on track.

Warinsko’s team has also discovered a wider issue. A number of air navigation service providers continue to invest in older technologies, typically mode-S radars. Such expenses may be detrimental to ADS-B expansion. But ADS-B brings more benefits than a mode-S radar network, at a lower cost and with a greater population of aircraft served, Warinsko contends.

If older ground equipment has to be maintained for particular users such as the military or light aviation, the question of whether they should pay for it is relevant, he says.

A positive effect of the slow traffic due to the pandemic is that it frees up time for controller training. The DSNA has cleverly seized the opportunity for SESAR and national-level projects, says Michel Coz Elleouet, a board member at French air traffic controller union SNCTA. “4-Flight and PBN-to-ILS each require 10 days of instruction per controller,” he says.

The DSNA seems to be avoiding the recruitment mistakes it made in the late 2000s, when it cut hiring plans. At the time, a downturn translated into a need for fewer air traffic controllers over the coming years, and the DSNA accordingly reduced its training capacities.

That approach proved shortsighted. “In 2016-18, we found ourselves with a dearth of controllers,” Coz Elleouet says. France’s ATM capacity could not keep up with air traffic growth, causing flight delays and therefore carrier and passenger exasperation.

This time, the DSNA is betting on traffic recovery and is well aware it will have to offer enough capacity to airlines, Coz Elleouet says. Hiring plans for 2020 have not been changed, so an annual budget to start a five-year training program for 100 controllers is pivotal.

The investment is all the more important as a wave of retirements is to begin in 2028, Coz Elleouet says.

Thierry Dubois

Thierry Dubois has specialized in aerospace journalism since 1997. An engineer in fluid dynamics from Toulouse-based Enseeiht, he covers the French commercial aviation, defense and space industries. His expertise extends to all things technology in Europe. Thierry is also the editor-in-chief of Aviation Week’s ShowNews.