Air traffic management flexibility: how can ANSPs change?

Isabel Franke-Chaudet

Air navigation service providers (ANSPs) have a range of options available to them to improve flexibility and build resilience, writes Dr Isabel Franke-Chaudet, Principal Consultant Aviation, Egis.

The COVID-19 pandemic challenged the aviation industry as no other crisis has before.

A dramatic drop in traffic levels in 2020 was followed by a faster than expected recovery to prepandemic levels in 2022 in some areas, and slower recovery in others. In the years to come increased volatility is to be expected. Previous challenges, such as capacity shortages, have returned, as well as new ones related to a loss of experienced personnel. This combined with recruitment and training challenges creates a significant risk to operational resilience, capacity provision and also the ability of the industry to innovate.

If there is anything that should be learnt from the past three years then it is the importance of resilience and flexibility. The industry must be capable of both ramping up and ramping down, while continuing to become more environmentally friendly and remaining socially sustainable. This resilience and flexibility can in part be achieved through an elastic cost base, which can be ramped up or down depending on traffic demand.

The Airspace Architecture study set out a vision for the future where operations are decoupled from geographic locations, based on common standards and architecture, thus resulting in resilience and flexibility in operation as well as cost. Although the industry is making progress and working towards 30 Insight this vision it is still some way off. In this article we provide Egis' views on practical steps that air navigation service providers (ANSPs) can make today to achieve improvements in the short-term, driving flexibility and resilience for the future.

Opportunities to improve cost-base elasticity exist across all cost-base elements: from staff costs, non-staff costs, and capital investment provisions. This opens up a range of options for ANSPs to consider that can make a real difference in the short term.

Ranging from staffing to investment and organisation, ANSPs need to plan ahead to allow for more flexibility while aiming to meet clear strategic objectives. The tendency has been to set resilience margins and only start planning when these margins start to erode – for example because a system reaches its end of life. The result is firefighting, and a reliance on the status quo. Building flexibility and contingency into ANSP plans from the outset is essential and this can be done in several ways.

"The industry must be capable of both ramping up and ramping down, while continuing to become more environmentally friendly and remaining socially sustainable"

Contingency planning and scenario planning are needed to enable organisations to be agile to changes in traffic or circumstances. This will inform operations and directly feed into strategic and investment plans allowing ANSPs to work towards a more efficient infrastructure while minimising their development costs.

Resource planning to ensure the right balance between external suppliers and in-house labour is also vital. External contracts can be more modular, allowing for a more proportional increase (or decrease) of the cost with the required output. A key to successful use of external services is that adequate service-level agreement provisions must be established, along with good supplier trust. This will then allow for ANSPs to set up an appropriate balance between external contracts and in-sourced labour, sharing the risk with the supplier and introducing flexibility in cost and operation.

There needs to be negotiating flexibility. Where there is a lack of staff availability, this can be done through negotiating overtime. Where there is too much staff availability, the concept of "negative-working" could be considered, where a given number of working hours will be deferred into the future. If negative working is not an option, it is key for staff to be redeployed within the ANSP to ensure that operational activities are supported when demand is high and business development/planning projects are accelerated when additional staffing capacity is present.

Finally, airspace change is required. Today’s airspace in Europe is mostly fragmented and in some regions it is outdated. Changes have been largely piecemeal. Reviews of the airspace and plans to implement changes to terminal manoeuvring areas (TMA) as well as en route to improve traffic flow and allow for better connectivity between TMA, en route and airports can also play an important role in improving resilience. This can also be supported by better use of Flexible Use of Airspace (FUA) concepts.

When ANSPs work together they can unlock economies of scale, benefit from sharing lessons learned and speed up innovation. There are various forms of possible cooperations ranging from alliances, such as illustrated by iTEC and COOPANS, to Service Level Agreements, and any ANSP could enter into several such arrangements depending on the crossborder infrastructure similarities.

Through joint procurement by clubs of ANSPs or using new models offered by some vendors involving creating a joint stock of spares for a number of partners held at vendors' facilities, this type of collaboration can also reduce training and maintenance costs. Business collaboration enables the sharing of knowledge, resources and working together where projects cannot be delivered alone.

Such collaboration will support innovation and will enable ANSPs to work together in implementing new procedures and concepts. Borealis has shown how this can be beneficial for all partners involved with the implementation of the Northern Europe Free Route Airspace (NEFRA) project. Operational collaboration and the ability to merge sectors has been commonplace for a long time, enabling airspace structures to be adapted to suit changing traffic patterns and staff redeployment. However real benefits can be achieved where capacity can be scaled across regions.

One example of it already being applied is the Geneva approach, where depending on direction of wind in relation to the runway, the traffic is managed by either DSNA or Skyguide. This is an example of a truly flexible arrangement supported by infrastructure, but also backed by the operational requirement, which if scaled up could drive real benefits in terms of contingency and flexibility. The flexibility of external services can also be applied and further extended through ANSP collaboration. Whether another ANSP is contracted or whether the collaboration enables greater use of services from a third party, it will increase flexibility in the cost base and enable more resilient operations, as long as they are underpinned by good contractual principles and supplier trust.

Real operational flexibility can only be achieved when supported by an underlying flexible architecture. Investment in the technical infrastructure of air traffic services (ATS) has focused on sustaining existing systems, which were designed for a more monolithic way of working. This, combined with existing national regulations and practices, has meant that flexibility in ATS has been difficult to achieve – the service lacks scalability. Solutions which will support flexibility are already identified in the ICAO GANP (International Civil Aviation Organization's Global Air Navigation Plan), Airspace Architecture study and European Master plan, and some have been implemented at least locally.

Data-sharing across flight information regions can ease more dynamic cross-border operations in the short term with a goal to move towards non-geographic ATCO licencing to enable sectors to be handled by different ACCs. Digital towers and virtual centres allow controllers to operate independently from their geographical location and deliver economies of scale, while providing more flexible staffing options as well as lower maintenance costs for new infrastructure. Automation and AI/machine learning can improve performance and ease the workload of ATCOs, also allowing for more effective rostering and flexible resource allocation. And the implementation of system-wide information management will enable better and faster decisions through information sharing and enhanced situational awareness.

Although the ultimate goal of connecting all the actors in the ATM world both at the ground level, and seamlessly between the ground and the air, may be some way off, the initial implementations will enable a shift in the way data is shared and used and will open opportunities for other concepts and technologies.

"Real operational flexibility can only be achieved when supported by an underlying flexible architecture"

The question is how far we can go and how fast? Will we be constrained by the importance of close controller communication in the delivery of ATS? Important safety/ human factors issues would need to be addressed, and of course there are other risks. It exposes traditionally isolated ATC systems towards operating in a “cloud computing” space – with all the additional cybersecurity considerations that come with that.

The crisis has exposed limitations in the current approach to crisis management, contingency operations, infrastructure design and business planning but also showcased the benefits and opportunities of investing in new solutions. Perceptions of staff as well as management will have evolved, and system changes coupled with new ways of working and changes to the underlying regulation could result in a step change. As we face a new more uncertain future there is a need to build resilience into our business models, service offerings, physical and virtual infrastructure and importantly, our people. Proactive steps must be taken by ANSPs and the relevant supervisory authorities, to ensure the industry is well prepared for both traffic variability and unforeseen external shocks.

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