Tanja Grobotek

Post-COVID, the air travel market has seen a bumpy recovery. Tanja Grobotek, Director Europe Affairs, Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO), looks at how the events of the last few years have changed air navigation service provision and what the future might hold.

In the last three years the European aviation industry has experienced two major crises from which it has still not fully recovered, yet at the same time we can also see opportunities for change in the years ahead.

This is certainly true for air navigation services providers (ANSPs), which are represented by CANSO. What can they expect as traffic returns, and what can they do to meet the challenges of the coming years?

Before we look at where we are going, we should recall where we are coming from.

"Our members will continue to strive to have the human capital needed for future traffic growth. Staff recruitment, retention and training will be essential in this regard"

The COVID pandemic had a devastating impact on the European aviation market, with traffic falling by nearly 90% in April 2020. The entire aviation chain had to adapt rapidly to new realities. While airlines and, to some extent, airports could scale down their operations, for example by furloughing staff, our ANSP members had to continue to fulfill their mandate to always keep the skies open, even for minimum traffic operating levels, such as for cargo and medical flights.

To enable this, they quickly put in place strict health protocols at their Area Control Centres (ACCs), including separation of working teams. Thankfully, none of CANSO's Europe members had to curtail their service provision due to an outbreak of COVID among their staff.

Since February 2022, European ANSPs have had to cope with the new challenges of the war in Ukraine. This has had a significant impact on traffic patterns, which was already visible in March 2022. Poland, the Baltic states and Norway saw major falls in overflights, whereas countries in central and south-east Europe experienced increases. The war introduced new uncertainty at a time when we had hoped for a return of stable growth across Europe. EUROCONTROL foresees in its Forecast Update 2022-2028 (October 2022) that this will slow down traffic recovery through increasing energy prices and a negative impact on the economy, although the general trend will still be upwards.

So where does this leave the air traffic management (ATM) industry?

Taking account of the developments outlined above, EUROCONTROL's Forecast Update foresees that, in the base scenario, traffic levels will continue to recover in 2023 and 2024 and finally surpass 2019 levels in 2025. Our industry's main challenges are to provide the necessary capacity to meet this, while also contributing towards the improvement of aviation’s environmental performance, in line with the EU’s climate goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. How will ANSPs approach this?

During COVID, CANSO's members resisted short-term financial pressures to making savings through cutting their workforce. It can take two to three years to train an air traffic controller (ATCO), and the role of air traffic safety electronic personnel (ATSEPs) is also highly skilled. Taking the long-term view, our members decided instead to take on additional financing so that they could retain essential staff. This approach was vindicated in summer 2022, when ANSPs had sufficient capacity to service demand in most cases, whereas staff shortages elsewhere in the aviation industry caused many flights to be cancelled.

Looking further ahead, there could be 16 million flights in 2050. Our members will continue to strive to have the human capital needed for future traffic growth. Staff recruitment, retention and training will be essential in this regard.

As well as having highly skilled air traffic controllers and their supporting technical colleagues, our industry will also apply certain measures to support capacity and enable more environmentally optimal trajectories.

The most important of these is Free Route Airspace (FRA), which allows airlines to plan a route between a defined entry point and a defined exit point rather than follow a route set in an air navigation plan. Aircraft can then fly exactly according to their filed flight plan, contributing to greater network efficiency both from a time and fuel burn/emissions perspective.

FRA is already well advanced, covering more than three-quarters of European airspace, and it will be fully implemented within countries by the end of 2025. The next stage will then be cross-border FRA, so that airlines can apply their own route planning across several countries. EUROCONTROL has estimated that, once fully implemented, FRA will save 1 billion nautical miles, 6 million tonnes of fuel, 20 million tonnes of CO2 and €5 billion in fuel costs.

Moreover, CANSO’s ANSP members can now demonstrate their environmental performance through GreenATM, CANSO’s new accreditation programme, which is the only one covering all environmental aspects managed within ANSPs. The programme uses the traditional maturity ranking models ranging from level 1 (informal arrangement) to level 5 (optimised). GreenATM will allow ANSPs to both communicate about their performance, and to identify how to improve it.

Another element of efficient ATM provision is digitalisation and automation. Our members' ambitious investments have great potential to enhance further efficiency and capacity. In France, DSNA is rolling out 4-FLIGHT, an ambitious, integrated, new generation air traffic control system, which will allow it to handle dense, complex traffic safely and efficiently. 4-FLIGHT is based on an enhanced flight data processing system, known as Coflight, which updates an aircraft’s flight plan trajectory in real time. It is already in operation in the Reims and Marseille ACCs and will be operative in all of France’s ACCs by 2025. DSNA expects that this new system will enable it to provide up to 25% more capacity, depending on the characteristics of the sectors.

In Spain, ENAIRE will invest €107 million integrated into the actions for the Development of the Single European Sky (SES) of the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan of the Spanish Government, subsidised by the Recovery and Resilience Mechanism of the NextGenerationEU funds, to modernise its air traffic control and surveillance (CNS) systems and over the period 2020-2026. This includes digitalisation projects in areas such as pilot-controller communication, voice communication in ACCs and the primary radar network, as well as U-space, among others.

And in Poland, in Q1 2022, PANSA finalised the technical part of a contract to transition from voice to digital departure clearance, using datalink services for data exchanges between ATCOs and pilots. This improved communication will give less scope for misunderstandings and help to improve safety and ensure timely departures. It will be rolled out at eight international airports starting from 2023.

Buy-in by ATM staff for such projects is essential, and so it is important that the implementation is accompanied by dialogue with their unions to ensure a smooth transformation to new ways of working.

In 2023, the European Commission is consulting with aviation stakeholders on the framework for the Fourth Reference Period (RP4) of the EU’s ATM Performance and Charging Scheme, which will run from 2025 to 2029. The assumptions and performance targets of the current Third Reference Period (RP3) were thrown up in the air due to COVID’s effect on entire air transport chain. This makes it an appropriate time to reflect on what we want from the scheme, and how we should shape it to capture performance in a more appropriate manner and to drive improvements.

For all four Key Performance Areas (KPAs) – Capacity, Cost Efficiency, Environment and Safety – it is important to distinguish those factors which are and are not under the control of ANSPs. For example, for Environment, ANSPs must currently meet targets based on the deviation of the actual flown route (KEA) measured from the Great Circle Distance – but KEA can depend on airline routing choices and the local weather.

Moreover, there are clear interdependencies between Cost Efficiency, Capacity and Environment – making financial savings in one Reference Period, for example by cutting back on investments in new infrastructure, recruitment or training, can be detrimental to provision of capacity in the following one. We hope that the EU can agree improvements to the scheme that will be satisfactory for all parties and ultimately deliver benefits to passengers.

At the time of writing, the EU institutions are still deep in discussion to try to unlock their differences on the Single European Sky legislative proposals (SES2+). CANSO supports the European Commission's ambition to realise a strengthened European network to provide greater resilience, more capacity and more environmentally optimal routing. Yet even if there is no agreement on SES2+, our members will remain firmly committed to the same vision and to delivering improvements in European airspace management, as set out above.

"We are now entering an exciting era for aviation in which the speed of change and rate of innovation will be faster than they have been for decades"

A growing area of activity for our industry is in unmanned aircraft systems traffic management (UTM) and unmanned airspace (U-space). We are now entering an exciting era for aviation in which the speed of change and rate of innovation will be faster than they have been for decades.

A wide range of vehicles are already or soon will be taking to the sky, including small drones and air taxis. The ATM industry needs to be ready for this as demand for new services continues to climb.

Safely accommodating new airspace users into our sky, without congestion or increased delay, will require new ways of thinking and increased collaboration among the broader aviation community.

CANSO's members stand ready to play a key role in this exciting new chapter of aviation, namely being an important enabler to UTM/U-Space integration in ATM by providing critical U-space services to both manned and unmanned aviation.

To conclude, we should emphasise that in the years ahead, just as now, safety will always remain the number one priority of ANSPs

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