A unique opportunity to accelerate development

John Santurbano

"The Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre (MUAC) is used to blazing a trail. Europe’s high performing multinational air navigation service provider manages the upper airspace over Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and north-west Germany – among the busiest and most complex in the region. It is Europe’s only crossborder civil-military ANSP and uniquely provides services around traffic flows, not borders."

says by John Santurbano, Director Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre, EUROCONTROL

Prior to COVID-19, MUAC was handling a growing share of European traffic, stretching controller capacity and curtailing qualified expertise available for research and development. The pandemic in contrast has allowed focus to shift even more to innovation and change, visible in the number of accelerated projects aimed at addressing long-term issues facing the industry.

Setting priorities

The initial priority was keeping Maastricht’s employees safe and protected against the virus.

Our people are the fuel that enables the engine to run. We spent time and investment adapting the premises, introducing teleworking and communicating with staff,” says John Santurbano, Director of MUAC. “We also had to continue daily operations, supporting essential medical deliveries, cargo and repatriation flights as well as military traffic.”

Retaining staff competences became more important as traffic fell more than 80%, prompting the deployment of enhanced digitalisation solutions. MUAC’s test and training infrastructure - a highly complex software environment - was made available from outside the premises to designated users, allowing them to continue to work remotely through a secure interface, and certification activities were carried out in a simulated environment to maintain qualifications.

Aligned with COVID-19 best practice, special rosters were formed to limit the number of contacts between staff and contain the spread of the virus. Added flexibility in shifts and standby rosters was agreed with social partners, including some shifts held over for when traffic resumes.

To help predict future demand, special dashboards were developed to compare sector threshold values with forecast data received from the EUROCONTROL Network Manager. Separate arrangements were made for military sectors that took advantage of spare capacity to run supplementary training activity, matched by appropriate staff levels.

“Our controllers do more than operate the airspace; they are multi-tasking and innovative, and they have a unique expertise. Our engineers hold the system’s intellectual property. We have a significant advantage and we are using this time intelligently.”

Time for innovation

Less than a year earlier Santurbano launched MUAC’s Engagement and Innovation programme and in particular the so-called InnoLab, aimed at encouraging new ideas and modernisation.

“We are one of the best in class, but if you want to increase capacity and improve operations, this calls for new technology and new solutions. Our people already work in a performant and efficient way most of the time, so we focus on how we can make the airspace more efficient.”

The work includes increased cooperation with the EUROCONTROL Network Manager, military partners and neighbouring ANSPs. It also includes special focus on technology and digitisation.

Collaborative actions were already in place in response to the capacity squeeze experienced in 2018. For some years Maastricht has consulted regularly with customers and with its ‘Customer Initiative’ in particular, it uses input from airspace users to help shape new developments designed to save time and costs for the airlines.

This was formalised with the creation of the ATM Portal, an electronic platform which supports data exchange and helps to identify efficiency opportunities. It uses data analytics in a co-creational setting, drawing on MUAC’s flight data processing and flow management system, combined with information supplied by the airlines, to identify local improvements. Its criticality indicators automatically protect against events such as airport curfews, crews running out of hours and schedule disruption, and provide tactical support to the integrated Flow Management Position (iFMP).

"The ATM Portal enables coordinated collaborative decision-making in real time.”

“The ATM Portal enables coordinated collaborative decision-making in real time between aircraft operators’ operations control centres, flow management positions and the EUROCONTROL Network Manager, which helps make real savings,” says Santurbano.

The ATM Portal is trialled by other ANSP partners such as Karlsruhe and Reims UACs, as well as the Network Manager. Discussions are underway to expand the portal to include other users including UK NATS and Zurich airport.

Another activity accelerated during the traffic downturn which MUAC launched was a Pre-flight Check’ to identify the best possible route and flying altitude for individual flights. The tool assesses each flight plan filed in fine detail and - where applicable - sends an offer to the aircraft operator with NM in the loop to optimise the route. The airline can refile if benefits justify this. Opportunities are based on aspects including aircraft performance, comparison of commonly flown routes, available capacity and inactive military areas. These improved flight profiles are often hidden or difficult to find by the aircraft operator. Developed and deployed in just six weeks, users are now gaining valuable experience on the system during a time of low demand with increased benefits anticipated as traffic returns.

MUAC has also introduced more flexibility to Route Availability Documents (RAD), or airspace measures, imposed to ensure sufficient capacity in congested airspace. While many RAD restrictions were lifted as a result of COVID-19 traffic downturn, airspace users still encounter military airspace restrictions and sub-optimal routing which raises cost and lowers efficiency. MUAC is offering tactical changes via a new service called MUAC-AO AIRAC brief which shares the latest data about RAD changes with airspace users to improve flight planning. This, together with the Pre-Flight Check, is due to be integrated into the ATM Portal, which in turn can be added to neighbouring flow management positions, for example in Karlsruhe and Reims.

“We are using working groups and collaborating with our partners to implement these procedures,” explains Santurbano. “The further we come during this COVID-19 period, the more we can consolidate these developments. You have to put yourself in the shoes of the other players and understand all the issues. The network is only as good as the weakest link in the system.”

Shared airspace

Collaboration is central to MUAC’s civil-military operations, shown in the recent creation of the MUAC Flexible Use of Airspace (FUA) Cell to manage daily allocation of flexible airspace in the Netherlands in June 2020. Established in cooperation with the Royal Netherlands Air Force, the Dutch Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment, the cell replaces the Dutch Airspace Management Cell and improves real-time civil-military cooperation, reduces airspace segregation needs, and increases flight efficiency in the Netherlands.

With the creation of the MUAC FUA Cell, airspace management became an integral part of the air traffic flow and capacity management process within the Netherlands, in preparation for the Dutch airspace redesign planned for 2023.

Equally significant is MUAC ’s Shared ATS System (SAS2), MUAC’s flight data processing system deployed and operational at Belgian military facilities since December 2019. The common platform benefits civil-military operations, enhances interoperability, while also reducing investment, maintenance and training costs.

“We are analysing how we can do the same with other partners including Belgium’s civil air navigation service provider skeyes, and with Slovenia Control,” says Santurbano. “Delivering the same or similar services with the same technical infrastructure adds efficiency and synergies. It also fosters excellent cooperation between key partners.”

Climate impact

In December 2019, MUAC introduced free route airspace around-the-clock enabling airspace users to select preferred routes between entry and exit points, two years’ ahead of the European deadline. Cross-border options were also extended with Germany and the Danish-Swedish functional airspace block. Before the pandemic environmental benefits of free route airspace in the MUAC area were estimated at 40 tonnes of fuel and 150 tonnes CO2 emissions saved per day if all flights take advantage of the more flexible route structure. Additionally, airspace demand becomes more predictable and the remaining route network is being optimised to provide vertical connectivity between the free route zone and the lower airspace.

Minimising environmental impact is high on Santurbano’s policy agenda. A new initiative launched in April 2020 plans to validate ways of avoiding contrails using operational methods. The Contrail Avoidance Project examines a concept highlighted in previous studies showing that aircraft can be rerouted around atmospheric conditions which are conducive to contrails. Using predictions about atmospheric conditions, flights will be using more efficient profiles on the basis of weather forecasts to prevent contrails. The aim is to minimise intervention and maximise the positive impact, starting with validation of the whole process as well as individual components.

As a very small percentage of flights are responsible for most of the climate impact of contrails, the research examines whether reduced warming from contrails outweighs the extra fuel burn generated by a small number of diversions. The project will include live trials accompanied by analysis of satellite images to examine the results. MUAC expects the project to make a significant contribution to the sustainability of the industry by reducing its ecological impact.

The environment presents a tough challenge, says Santurbano, who also provides leadership to the Functional Airspace Block Europe Central (FABEC) Environment Standing Committee in his role as CEO Champion.

“Our environmental footprint has to be as good as possible. We also need to be aware of the financial crisis for the airlines. Our focus has to be on realistic, feasible projects generating tangible benefits at the earliest opportunity.”

With innovation at the heart of MUAC operations, this period of low traffic demand provides an ideal opportunity to develop new solutions for the challenges ahead.

“Our controllers do more than operate the airspace; they are multi-tasking and innovative, and they have a unique expertise. Our engineers hold the system’s intellectual property. We have a significant advantage and we are using this time intelligently.”

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