Interview

"The new Network Management system will be a fundamental enabler to improved trajectory management"

Iacopo Prissinotti

For Iacopo Prissinotti, Director of the EUROCONTROL Network Management Directorate, there are signs of real optimism that the aviation recovery, future demand and volatile operating conditions can all be accommodated in a more resilient network enhanced by new technology and a strong willingness to cooperate among key stakeholders.

What has been the impact of the war in Ukraine on the network?

We have around 350 fewer flights to and from Russia each day and we have some restricted airspace areas such as the eastern parts of Poland and Hungary. Long-haul flights between Europe and the Far East are having to fly considerably longer; most of the airliners are not equipped to overfly the Himalayas – because of the weight of the extra components – so they have to fly more southerly or westerly routes. This adds between one-and-a-half hours and four hours to the flight, depending on destination and origin.

Traffic flows that have shifted slightly west or south have been well absorbed without any significant increase in delays.

There is another possible impact we are analysing. The rise in oil prices and a consequent rise in ticket prices, which for the moment has been counter balanced by a continuing strong demand for travel.

Will it be possible to reach 2019 traffic levels without excessive delays and disruptions as a result of capacity constraints?

The EUROCONTROL Network Manager (NM) in partnership with airlines, air navigation service providers (ANSPs), military and airports is putting in place an unprecedented coordination to achieve the best performance in the network while traffic is growing to 2019 levels.

There are three main elements to consider in order to achieve such performance.

  1. There is an underlying demand for more air travel which is likely to see us reaching 100% of 2019 levels this summer in some areas of the network.
  2. There is volatility in the system as airlines ramp up their business. This requires a lot of re-adaptation in planning so this volatility will persist during the summer period.
  3. We have additional complexity with the war in Ukraine, the implementation of the 4Flight system in France and the airports quickly having to add capacity. Some airports will be well prepared whilst others will struggle to quickly add and train the staff needed. If there are significant airport problems in the morning in one major airport, these spread throughout the ATM network, creating a snowball effect.

Considering the above points, our main focus is on developing a stable plan by moving flights on routes around congested areas like we did in 2019. In 2018 this plan was not fully in place. The forecasted average delay per flight in the 2018 network plan was 1.5 minutes and we ended up with a situation that was often chaotic with huge delays in specific areas – bottlenecks. In 2019 there were similar levels of network delays but the overall situation was much better as we put in place a plan with measures to spread the traffic across the network with almost no disruption.

The biggest problem is bottlenecks. If there is a major bottleneck which causes aircraft to be stranded on the ground for three hours, airlines will re-plan their schedules but in a disorganised way which will lead to longer routes, level cappings and delays in other areas where there should be none. This must not happen.

"Our main focus is on developing a stable plan by moving flights on routes around congested areas like we did in 2019"

 

So in situations when traffic demand exceeds capacity we put in place measures that create small delays or small route extensions fairly spread across airspace users, but without major disruptions. In 2019 we put these measures in place after talking to ANSPs and airlines to manage this process. It was a titanic effort but everyone agreed to it resulting in a plan for the summer which enabled us to manage demand, still with some delays, but without a significant disruption in the network.

On top of this cooperative work with operations experts, I’m discussing with airline executives their active role in network planning since the only way to succeed as a European network is to have airlines participating in the planning process.

How will the new integrated Network Management (iNM) technologies and procedures currently under development improve the performance of the network?

Since I arrived two-and-a-half-years ago, EUROCONTROL has dramatically changed its strategy for system operations and system evolution. We have the iNM roadmap well in place and the system will be operational as from 2024. The new operations room is already half completed and we are moving at a pace very different from legacy systems where changes take a very long time to develop and deploy.

This year we will deploy software release 26 of our legacy system. I have just approved the final legacy system release 27 for next year. In 2024, we will have the new system.

One of the first new deliverables will be the next digital and integrated version of the European AIS Database (EAD) and Central Airspace and Capacity Database (CACD). After that, you will start to see incremental improvements across the board.

The new system will essentially allow us to bring all partners into the network operations function and integrate local performance improvements into the common system. There will be a single value-chain concept where, from research and development to operations, it’s one single process that will be a fundamental enabler of improved trajectory management.

"The new system will essentially allow us to bring all partners into the network operations function and integrate local performance improvements into the common system"

We will be able to ensure that the flight planned trajectory will be managed in an optimal way integrating, via advanced data processing capability, the trajectory with dynamic aeronautical data fully integrated with static data. This will allow us to optimise the business-to-business service, or business-to-customer as it will become. There will be a new way of interfacing in terms of an app-based human-machine-interface (HMI) approach.

This is evolving the role of the Network Manager from planning and flow control to also supporting the actual management and execution of the flight.

We believe it is important to have trajectory and network information – including constraints of sectors, weather and so on – available for every qualified stakeholder to use.

The operational concept evolution will see more automation and artificial intelligence become available to manage air traffic.

To integrate all this will take time and all these technological developments need to be part of a single value chain of deployment.

That’s why we are closely coordinating with the SESAR3 programme and the SESAR Deployment Manager of which we are now part because it needs to be a single line of effort.

Key target is to significantly reduce aviation’s impact on the environment, especially carbon dioxide emissions. Simulations have shown that we can reduce the potential impact levels significantly over a disorganised system of air traffic management.

We have to manage business growth as efficiently as possible and in a way which is as environmentally responsible as possible.

In the next years traffic levels will grow significantly and we will need new iNM and ANSPs capabilities to be in place. If you don’t have both, and if you don’t have strong planning partnerships between airlines, ANSPs and airports, then the separation of the infrastructure from operations is such that it will not be manageable. And I don’t think we can afford that.

The good news is the level of cooperation between stakeholders is excellent. The challenge of COVID brought us closer together and now our airline customers see that ATM is not just a collateral issue but can really generate value.

The modernisation of iNM and the ANSPs is ongoing with a coordinated network approach and this makes me think very positively about the future of aviation.

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