Modernising Europe’s skies: are we there yet?

May. 29, 2017

Pierre Andribet is Head of Research and Development and SESAR Contribution at EUROCONTROL. He has been contributing to SESAR even before it got its now recognisable name, having worked in the definition phase and the industry consortium shaping the precursor of SESAR back in 2003. In this first of a series of profiles on SESAR members, he recalls the “genesis” and subsequent launch of the SESAR 1 research activities, as well as some of the standout successes. With SESAR 2020 now fully operational, he also explains how his team is contributing to the work programme before concluding with some wise words on how to face the future.

Ready, steady, deploy!

I first got involved in SESAR back in the early 2000s, when the European air and ground industries were looking for an European initiative that could act as a counterweight to industry-led initiatives launched in US at the same time. Together these industry partners, called the Air Traffic Alliance, came together to launch “Deploy”. At EUROCONTROL, we enthusiastically embarked on this initiative which aimed at integrating all European R&D projects in a single programme and defining the future ATM system that could cope with the expected growth. We shouldn’t forget the capacity crunch that was feared by all ATM actors at that time. This was a pioneering initiative and I remember this time as one filled with endless enthusiasm, where those involved did anything but count the numbers of hours spent tirelessly bringing it to fruition.  

From divergence to convergence

Then came the SESAR definition phase in 2005: This was an equally impressive example of early collaboration gathering all pioneers from across the air traffic management landscape, from airlines, air navigation service providers to airports, and the air and ground industries. The objectives were clearly to initiate a significant change. It sometimes meant being extremely single minded and breaking down pieces of existing edifices to build the new system. It was impressive to see the partners find convergence despite diverging interests, and to deliver on time – a matter of two years - a commonly agreed solution. That’s not to say that there weren’t some heated disagreements along the way, but with a decision-making structure strongly managed by Industry, there was no room for stalemates, and decisions, even if hard, were always taken swiftly.

Learning to swim

With the launch of SESAR 1 research and innovation activities in 2008, it’s fair to say that we had to dive in even though we were not yet ready to swim. I can’t emphasise the immense challenges we faced at that time navigating through the intricate web of a programme made up of over 300 projects with so many co-dependencies. We suffered but we all learnt how to work together, and the programme gained momentum. This is especially thanks to the two successive “tiger teams” (we loved tigers at the time!), which were established to brainstorm practical ways of improving the delivery of programme results. These teams came up with the “Release” process for the packaging of results into “solutions” on an annual basis and the structuring of these solutions into the four key features reflecting the key operational areas of ATM. These changes significantly helped to focus the programme and to strengthen its result-driven approach. They also facilitated relations between partners with better mutual understanding and respect of everyone interests. This allowed SESAR 1 to deliver concrete solutions and to build SESAR 2020 on these foundations.

Jewels in the crown

There are really many jewels in the crown of solutions delivered in SESAR 1 so it is really difficult to choose among them. But there are some standout results from a EUROCONTROL perspective that are worth mentioning.

  • Short-term ATFM measures or STAMS address suddenly appearing “hotspots” caused by unexpected heavy traffic demand. With STAMS, capacity buffers that were added to protect against saturation are no longer needed, allowing the greater agility in the system to deal with bottlenecks as they arise.
  • User driven prioritisation process or UDPP involve airlines in the ATFM process, allowing them to indicate their priorities in terms of flight departures. The solution rightly recognises that not all delays have the same financial impact. For instance connecting flights are more costly than point-to-point flights that have more “relaxed” turnarounds. The solution was validated in SESAR 1 paving the way for more ambitious work in SESAR 2020.
  • Wake vortex re-categorisation and time-based separation (TBS) are helping big European hubs to optimise their runway capacity, something which is critical for the overall efficiency of the ATM system. Essentially these solutions reduce the buffers used for wake turbulence separation, which are known to be overestimated, while still maintaining safety. Huge work was done in SESAR 1 to show that it is possible to apply these solutions in normal as well as adverse weather conditions (such as strong headwind). We also showed the significant time gains that could be achieved, so it is no surprise to see that the most constrained airports are now deploying these solutions and are already reaping the rewards.
  • Total airport management (TAM) is about looking at the big picture! We all know that ensuring a smooth turnaround is a real challenge almost impossible to achieve, and when weather conditions are not good it can become a nightmare. The only way to improve is to ensure that all airport processes, both airside and landside, are connected.
  • System-wide information management (SWIM) is so simple yet revolutionary for our sector since it uses modern yet standard internet-based technology to enable a multitude of ATM services.

 

Focused contribution, focused expertise

With SESAR 2020, EUROCONTROL is representing a third of the programme, so we are almost in all the projects. This does not mean that we are equally everywhere. We have focused our contribution along our recognised added value. One such area includes improving the performance at Network level, which is a natural contribution given EUROCONTROL’ S role as Network Manager. We also work on achieving European and global interoperability in strong relation to the role we play within ICAO. Finally, we prioritise our contribution to R&D that has a common interest to the whole European aviation community, but is too big to be supported by only one European ANSP.

 

Challenges on the horizon

I am 99% convinced that with SESAR 2020 we have learnt from the experiences of SESAR 1 and have built together the right programme to address the key challenges the ATM system will face in the next 15 to 20 years. But we shouldn’t be complacent about the remaining percent. In it lies some questions that we need to address. Take the costs efficiency of ATM. Yes, SESAR solutions like controller tools and remote tower will reduce costs. But we must go much further and look at the ATM business model itself and the technical systems where the greatest economies of scale can be achieved. The seeds for these changes are in SESAR 2020 in the areas of virtualisation, common services and sectorless operations.

We also need to ask the question: are we making the best use of technology improvements that are developed outside ATM? While 20 years ago ATM and aviation were ahead in all technologies, this is no longer the case today. Looking outside to internet giants for example, we see huge improvements taking place at a very fast pace. Are we really able to keep with this pace of technology changes when we are still struggling to deploy air-ground datalink or 25-year-old technologies? ATM needs to look beyond its horizon and make use of what is done elsewhere. We must stop the “Not-Invented-Here” syndrome and maximise synergies with these fast evolving domains that now lead in the technology landscape.

The SESAR Joint Undertaking continues to provide us with the right collaborative framework with which to face these challenges together.  By bringing together the entire ATM community, as well as new entrants, we have at our fingertips the expertise, tools and knowledge to deliver the ATM system of the future. But we need to continue to challenge the way we work and strive to do better together.