Improving network performance by integrating operational and technical working groups

Improving network performance

The Network Directors of Operations (NDOP) and Network Directors of Technology (NDTECH) working groups work together with the Network Manager Management Board to ensure the Operational Excellence programme is fully supported by specialist technical and operational expert stakeholder representatives.

Ulf Thibblin, Chair of NDTECH, & Xavier Benavent, Chair of NDOP, report.

If Europe’s air traffic management (ATM) system is to optimally support a recovery in European aviation and then evolve to a new ATM architecture which can flexibly adapt to rapidly changing market conditions, it will require a new way of linking the EUROCONTROL Network Manager (NM) and stakeholder interests within the framework of the Single European Sky vision.

The Network Directors of Operations (NDOP) and Network Directors of Technology (NDTECH) working groups are working with the NM Management Board (see “NDOP and NDTECH – providing stakeholder support to operational excellence”) to do exactly that: bring together all relevant stakeholder groups to define priorities within EUROCONTROL’s Operational Excellence Programme. These have changed. Conceived at a time when capacity optimisation was one of the key drivers - behind safety enhancement - for the operational excellence programme the work of NDOP and NDTECH in 2020 has focused on redefining the programme’s priorities to ensure they are relevant to the new market conditions.

“It has been a challenge. Collaboration is crucial for the recovery but the onset of the pandemic has meant we have to deal with different recovery plans at air navigation service provider (ANSP) and State levels, different budgets and different strategies for surviving the pandemic. So it has been very important to understand each other’s position. Some States have seen traffic levels decline deeply while others less so and we still do not know when the recovery will happen.”

Xavier Benavent NDOP Working Group Chair ENAIRE

“What we have seen during the COVID-19 crisis is that as a community we can’t easily scale up and down at a technical level. Our airspace is not designed to be changed that rapidly and we apply quite rigid rules on the numbers of controllers per sector, for example. But it is clear that we will need to change both technical and operational aspects together, so if we introduce a more flexible system on the technical side we will be able translate this to more flexibility on the operational side.”

Ulf Thibblin NDTECH Working Group Chair, LFV

In September 2020 NDOP/NDTECH organised a joint workshop in cooperation with SESAR Joint Undertaking and the SESAR Deployment Manager to finalise and agree the new priorities of the Operational Excellence Programme. The workshop was an important milestone in bringing together more than 200 representatives from all stakeholders – including civil and military airspace users, ANSPs and airports – to re-examine new ways of collaboration to improve the recovery process. It has also helped to build new levels of trust between different stakeholders, say work group experts. In Europe politics is never far from the surface but if smaller stakeholders see their future independence will not be compromised by data sharing they start to become more open, more willing to share, and everyone gains from this process.

NDOP & NDTECH’S work has already started to yield other important results

“One of the main achievements of collaboration between NDTECH and NDOP is that there is now more awareness of the needs of the network,” says Xavier Benavent. “Everyone has been understandably focused on their local levels without taking into account the needs of their neighbours. Now we have weekly meetings to look at what will happen next week, what weather to expect, potential industrial action, so we can think of solutions altogether. To the external world this may not seem very much, but it is.”

In January 2021 EUROCONTROL launched a new portal that provides detailed information on the teams and groups working on NM issues. The portal maps the various groups and sub-groups linking NM and operational stakeholders in the collaborative work to ensure capacity matches demand while helping stakeholders meet their goal of close-to-zero air traffic flow management (ATFM) delays and develop more efficient and green trajectories.

Another key benefit from this cooperation has been the increased sharing of data among stakeholders, a vital element to improving the performance of the network at all levels.

“When it comes to collecting data from the communications, navigation and surveillance (CNS) infrastructure there are many stakeholders involved” says Ulf Thibblin, “including airlines and the military. Some are amenable to sharing data but other less so. We have been working on improving the collection of data monitoring and how this relates to the evolution of the CNS infrastructure, which is starting to provide multiple benefits. We have the NDTECH meeting the day after the NDOP meeting and that gives the technical side the opportunity to comment on operational aspects - and vice versa. It also means that the Operational Excellence work programme has been given more substance because it has been approved by both groups.”

This is particularly important currently as many ANSPs are reducing their infrastructure as a result of the COVID-19 crisis and it is vital that the operational implications of this are fully explored. It is also important to ensure that when money is available for investment it is used in the right way.

“This process has to be customer driven and therefore it’s very important to keep this close cooperation between operations and technology,” says Ulf Thibblin.

That means the NDOP/NDTECH teams are addressing not just technical and operational issues but critical funding issues, too. For example, discussions are underway among stakeholders about progress on strategic programmes such as datalink, which will require a coordinated approach among ANSPs and aircraft operators – if these critical programmes are slowed because of funding issues it is important to explore new financing avenues to ensure the benefits are realised as widely and as quickly as possible.

As well as ensuring resources are properly matched to the current demands of airlines and the wider aviation ecosystem, NDOP/NDTECH experts are also looking to the future, to plan for a post-pandemic world where Europe’s ATM system will again face major capacity issues. In the short term this means evolving the airspace, operational concepts and the infrastructure to provide optimal levels of capacity so airlines can grow their services in line with market demand without restrictions and at the most affordable cost. In the longer term, it will mean developing an ATM system which will rapidly be able to adapt to sudden peaks and troughs of demand.


Providing stakeholder support to operational excellence

The Network Directors of Operations (NDOP) and Network Directors of Technology (NDTECH) are two of the three working groups of the Network Management Board (the third is the Budget Working Group). In late 2019, EUROCONTROL launched the Operational Excellence programme, in cooperation with operational stakeholders, to improve European network performance by identifying and agreeing optimal operational and technical evolutions required to meet improvement targets. NDOP and NDTECH have pivotal roles to play in this initiative and are working with stakeholders across the aviation community to prioritise performance improvements from 18 workstreams - including procedures, resources, ATM throughput, CNS, interoperability and so on - across five different domains: Operational, Capacity, Network, Airports and Infrastructure.

NDOP/NDTECH teams working in close collaboration with nm will have a critical role to play in the longer term

Accelerating automation and digitalization will create a more flexible total system that better can manage traffic fluctuations and capacity-versus-workforce levels.

“That will change the way the system is managed and will require technology and operations to be more closely coordinated and involves many change management aspects,” says Ulf Thibblin. “If Europe were a single country we wouldn’t need the number of control centres, controllers, radars we have today so from a theoretical perspective it’s very simple. If we strengthen cooperation and build trust we can work towards common goals and move faster, even though we are not one country.”

“Collaboration is vital to our future,” says Xavier Benavent, “and collaboration with the NM in particular is excellent. But our problems will not be solved purely by reactive cooperation, we have to work hard to achieve a proactive partnership to get a stable traffic prediction for staffing levels as airlines and States can overnight decide to cancel large numbers of flights. But at least we can work together to resolve these issues as best as we can despite budget restraints and limited staff availability.”

Get our latest issue of Skyway

Explore our latest articles and download the full issues.