Airlines back MUAC’s new greener route plan

John Santurbano

An interview with John Santurbano, Director Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre, EUROCONTROL

Airline support is growing for a new service which proposes more environmentally responsible routes through EUROCONTROL Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre (MUAC) managed airspace.

Six months into the start of EUROCONTROL MUAC’s new ECO Service, over 100 airlines are already accessing modified routes proposed by MUAC to reduce flight emissions. The service is a new addition to the Pre-Flight Check (PFC) process deployed three years ago, to improve punctuality and flight efficiency.

The ECO Service targets all greenhouse gas emissions while also taking into account reserved airspace for military activities, network constraints and flight schedules. The environmental data is estimated by the Advanced Emissions Model (AEM) developed and maintained by EUROCONTROL’s Aviation Sustainability Unit in the EUROCONTROL Innovation Hub (Brétigny/France). Through advanced algorithms, AEM processes flight trajectories on a flight-byflight basis to estimate the amount of fuel burn and related exhaust emissions including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, water vapour, the oxides of nitrogen and sulphur, unburnt hydrocarbons and particulate matters. This identifies the routes with a smaller environmental impact, enabling MUAC to propose these to participating airlines on a daily basis, taking care to exclude those that conflict with other network priorities.

Integrating environmental data into MUAC’s operational processes is the result of many months of detailed analysis. The environmental measurements had to be interpreted in an operational context and to be actionable by operational staff. “We needed to be able to estimate flight emissions before we could think about improving them,” says John Santurbano, Director of EUROCONTROL MUAC. “We achieved that at the end of 2022 and ran a live trial to test the reaction of the airlines. As we hoped, they welcomed the initiative and uptake is currently around 25% of the opportunities we propose.” Reduced flight emissions are frequently associated with a shorter flight duration and lower costs which also helps to promote the concept.

Still in the trial phase and yet to achieve full coverage and resourcing, the MUAC ECO Service has already delivered more than 2,640 eco proposals, each generating flight emissions savings.

Flight emissions are a new feature in airline flight planning, where cost, punctuality and efficiency drive the planning process. Aircraft operators have further complex trade-offs to consider: selecting a route with the lowest environmental impact needs to be weighed against other flight criteria and costs including flight duration, flight connections and the potential increase in route charges incurred if the flight enters a different flight information region.

Similarly, the key performance indicators set by the European Commission to assess air navigation service providers (ANSPs)’ productivity measure output in terms of safety, capacity, cost efficiency and, for the environment, horizontal flight efficiency. Since the environmental topic is more than just horizontal flight efficiency, MUAC is a pioneer in this area and is unique in offering its ECO Service. It is also supporting its roll out at other air navigation service providers as part of a wider ambition to be proactive in making the switch to tackling flight emissions.

MUAC works closely with the EUROCONTROL Network Manager and neighbouring air navigation service providers. Routes proposed as part of the Pre-Flight Check that impact adjacent airspace are first agreed with neighbouring air navigation service providers before their release to the airlines’ operations centres. Leveraging decades of close cooperation between MUAC and neighbouring partners, John Santurbano anticipates that more facilities could be ready to operate an ECO Service within the next 12 months.

Enhanced collaboration

A key enabler for the collaborative process behind the ECO Service is the MUAC ATM-Portal (ATM-P). The platform gives all users the ability to share data and, when combined with efficiency algorithms, to act on a range of cost savings as well as – since the start of 2023 – environmental opportunities. Algorithms detect and automatically display potential problems such as long delays, airport curfew times, tight airline schedules, change of status or parameters in the flight plan. Airlines can assign priority status to their flights using the ATM-P and can access re-routing proposals issued by air traffic control. The collaborative tool ensures the interests of all stakeholders are represented and provides an interface between automated flight planning and operational flight phases.

“Our data set is different to that of the airlines,” explains John Santurbano. “There may be a more efficient route the airline has missed, or the automated Computerised Flight Plan Service Provider process has not identified a particular opportunity. This is where the manual top layer adds value.” The goal is to expand participation in the ECO Service from today’s 100+ airlines to serve all aircraft operators and share route opportunities with each of them.

Adding more data is another objective, for example working with Computerised Flight Plan Service Providers and airlines to expand aircraft performance information. In addition to aircraft type, MUAC is looking to include aircraft mass, speed, way points and other predictions going forward. “We have started working on the integration of more frequent weather updates from our German weather partner,” adds Santurbano. “We include wind predictions and expect to add more precise weather data.”

Horizontal view of the current and proposed routing

Tactical opportunities

On top of more eco-friendly flight planning, enhanced data will help MUAC’s ambitions to enable air traffic controllers to offer more environmentally friendly trajectories during tactical flight phases. As it is important to know the arrival runway and the likelihood of that changing, a model to predict runway usage has been developed and, if this information is known six hours in advance, MUAC can propose a more optimal route. Air traffic controllers can then plan more efficient smooth descent paths in place of stepped operations for example, to reduce emissions. MUAC became the first air navigation service provider in Europe to display aircraft intent information – downlinked automatically from the aircraft’s flight management system information via ATS B2 Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Contract (ADS-C) via the aeronautical telecommunications network (ATN) – in May 2022, making available data such as optimum top of descent and descent profile for controllers to take advantage of the more precise aircraft information.

Meanwhile MUAC is already identifying environmental opportunities not yet available to other stakeholders as a result of the existing collaborative network. Integration of civil and military operations at MUAC supports efficient cross-border civil-military services in the upper airspace of Germany and the Netherlands. “Contact with the military zones in our airspace is direct, either to the operations room or central supervisor,” says John Santurbano. “Thanks to the Dutch Flexible Use of Airspace Cell based at MUAC and the direct link with the military authorities in Belgium and Germany, we immediately know when an area becomes available and can directly coordinate delivery of routes through these deactivated areas with the aircraft operators (both tactically and in the pre-flight phase). The direct contact enables adjustment of their flight plan according to the latest situation which results in cost and environmental benefits.”

Comparison between the current and proposed routing, including the improvement in flight emissions (GHG values)

Expanding the ECO Service is part of a wider MUAC project called the Greenhouse gases and Aviation footprint reduction in ATC operations (GAIA) project, launched in early 2023. GAIA aims to bring MUAC’s environmental initiatives together under one umbrella to provide airspace users with a series of economic indicators that will collectively contribute to reduced emissions. MUAC is also reviewing its entire environmental footprint to identify how the organisation can eventually become climate neutral, perhaps even climate positive, in the near future.

MUAC engages directly with the airlines to receive feedback and comments on environmental topics including the ECO Service. Specific topics are discussed during “BlueSky” workshops involving a small number of airlines which are especially motivated to identify opportunities to raise environmental performance. “We hear about our shortcomings and we try to address those with a systemic solution. We think we are on the right path, but we need all the stakeholders to make significant steps forward,” says John Santurbano. “We are proud of the start we have made but it is just the beginning.”

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