Interview

“We are now all collaborators working within a single network”

We are now all collaborators working within a single Network

The last 18 months has seen the EUROCONTROL Network Manager forge more collaborative relationships with aviation stakeholders, paving the way to a coordinated recovery.

Steven Moore, Head of ATM Network Operations at EUROCONTROL

How do you begin to develop a recovery plan when we don’t know what the recovery will look like or when it’s going to take place?

EUROCONTROL has been working on weekly recovery plans since the end of April 2020 so we’re now very experienced at looking at the signs and trying to work out what recovery will look like over a six-week period. Since the start of the year, in consideration of COVID-19, European States have been trying their best to keep a lid on international travel so I think we have a good idea of what’s going to happen, especially as we now have close collaboration with airports, airlines and air navigation service providers (ANSPs).

Our planning has become a great deal more precise as airlines are now providing us with much more accurate information. Airlines, especially the low-cost carriers, have done a lot more modelling around when passengers will be more likely to buy tickets if they are confident of their travel plans. And we have had a lot of practice now – we’ve produced over 24 rolling sixweek plans, with many four-week plans prior to that.

We have released the network Ops Plan for the summer this year, predicated on many States opening up, and this been developed with more information than we’ve ever had before, mainly because airlines and airports have had more time to look scientifically at what they're going to do and how they’re going to ramp up.

Low-cost carriers say they can get back to 80%-plus capacity in under ten days, so we have to make sure that ATC at airports and ANSPs are ready, not just from the point of view of air traffic but also practically on the ground with all the support that is required, at airports, which is why we are working with stakeholders like ACI EUROPE. Airlines understand that while they may be able to ramp up very quickly, they will need to give as much notice as possible to those suppliers in the network. This is where the close coordination and rolling plans really provide a single point of truth and focus. We’ve also been running a series of webinars with ACI EUROPE around the spacing required in terminals for COVID-19 compliance – and understanding how their planning is linked to airline schedules.

We have seen a sudden flare-up of the pandemic in India, which shows just how unpredictable the market can be. Do we now have the tools in place to deal with these sudden troughs and spikes in demand?

Airlines are absolutely able to deal with this. Airports and ANSPs are becoming much better at it. For example, we have recently seen a pandemic flare-up in Turkey, which has been the one area driving most of the passenger traffic across Europe.

It has given us a very good pointer on what happens when a significant aviation market more or less closes.

But as more countries get on top of their vaccination programme, I think we’re less likely to see these short, sharp lockdowns and we’re more likely to return to an era of consistent growth.

Can you estimate how much capacity has been taken out of the European network since the start of 2020?

In theory, we haven't lost any capacity and we’ve possibly gained some, because with the massive reduction in traffic we have managed to relax some of the Route Availability Document (RAD) measures.

But what we have lost is the recency in the ability of air traffic controllers and airport staff to handle efficiently the number of flights they were managing in 2019.

This means that potentially the capacity levels of ANSPs are not initially going to be the same as they were in 2019. Many have been running simulations and with the rolling NOPs we’re asking all ANSPs to plan for 10% greater demand than in the forecasts. But if low-cost carriers suddenly begin flying 80% of their 2019 schedules it would take more than eight or nine days for controllers to get back up to speed.

ANSPs have been using simulators to keep their controllers current – but this is not the same as pilots retaining their skills in flight simulators. There will potentially be issues regarding tactical restrictions when a significant spike in traffic demand occurs. Even if summer-sun traffic this year is just 60% of 2019, that is 23,000 daily flights in the network with concentrations of traffic down to the Balearics for example. There will be pinch points and it’s the job of the Network Manager Operation Centre (NMOC) to make sure that we are doing everything we can to alleviate those bottlenecks with a minimal amount of delay. Since 2012 colleagues in the NMOC have been working hard to reduce delays averaging 3-3.5 million minutes each year by tactical use of re-routings, offloads, active slot list management, e-Helpdesk support, and more recently a dedicated Airport Position.

"But as more countries get on top of their vaccination programme, I think we’re less likely to see these short, sharp lockdowns and we’re more likely to return to an era of consistent growth."

In 2021 we’re still driving for as close-to-zero delay as possible, with the best trajectories. But if the traffic in the sectors is all more or less one-way heading southeast or southwest to the major tourist destinations in the sun at six in the morning, and then coming back in the opposite direction a few hours later, there's going to be some bottleneck capacity issues.

"We are all collaborators in that network, and we need to keep that close contact going."

We’re going to have to work really hard in the flow management positions here in the NMOC, and with Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs), airports and aircraft operators to make sure we do everything we can with re-routing and tactical measures to keep delays to a minimum, always taking a network view for the best solution to ensure safety, best trajectories and keeping delays to a minimum.

There are two opposite drivers in the network – one is to ensure we protect the environment as much as possible and the other to enable as much growth as possible. Have we been able, in the last 18 months to square at least some of that circle by introducing better trajectories and using the network more intelligently?

The Operational Excellence Programme is a critical part of that and there is an ongoing commitment from the EUROCONTROL Network Manager to work with ANSPs to redesign route restrictions entirely and remove as many as possible. The relaxation of the route restrictions saved around 24,000 nautical flight miles, producing thousands of tonnes of savings in emissions. As aviation returns post COVID the environment is increasingly more likely to drive behaviours and changes – for example in some countries, “flight shaming” is an important factor in traveller decisions.

In the operations room we are actively working with airlines and the dispatchers day-to-day to make sure that flight plans are the most efficient possible, managing rerouting proposals with new tools and a dogged determination to offer the very best support and routings in terms of both delay and the environment.

We’ve also introduced the Airport Function as a permanent feature in the ops room. This allows airports to link as critical nodes into the network system, so we have a similar link to them as we have with airlines. This is going to make a significant difference, as we expect there will be concentrated traffic demand at certain airports and colleagues working within the NMOC will be there to support the airports in this critical recovery period.

We’ve also worked hard this past year on delay mitigation and how we can understand much better why delays have occurred in the network and then act on that to prevent or reduce the chance of reoccurrence. We are now much more proactive in our post-operations analysis than before, starting with critical operational feedback from the NMOC colleagues, and then from the actors involved from within the network.

We have turned this process into a proactive and collaborative review with daily and hourly breakdowns where necessary, to make sure that the system capacity is optimised as far as possible and, importantly, sharing the output of such postoperative analysis not just with colleagues within the NMOC, but also the stakeholders in the network.

We plan the day, we execute the plan for the day, we review the plan of the day against the tactical reality, we learn from it, and then disseminate the lessons ensuring that the next plan picks up the salient elements thereby allowing for a cycle of continuous operational improvement.

But some things have changed in the market - France and Germany, for example, say they want to remove domestic flights and replace them with fast train services.

Yes and that's absolutely right, proper and understandable. That will remove localised pressure at airports like Charles de Gaulle and Amsterdam. But there aren’t many people flying short internal flights and those that do tend to be travelling on business.

From my personal experience, where the train is a viable alternative it’s already the preferred mode of transport, but in many cases this is just not possible.

Therefore credible changes must be made, and the system that remains must allow for the greatest reduction to the environmental impact must be upheld. Electrification of both aircraft for short trips, and at airports is a real key enabler, along with significant improvements in the network in terms of true gate-to-gate planning and execution.

"iNM is more than just a system upgrade. It’s the systematic redevelopment of how aircraft trajectories are managed within the network and beyond."

Has this crisis improved the dialogue between the various stakeholders?

Yes, undoubtedly. Competing airlines, airports and ANSPs are now much more interested in collaboration to do their very best for the combined interests of the network and to support the recovery for all.

Closer collaboration is key. In the past EUROCONTROL, I think, has been seen to be on the side of ANSPs but from my perspective as Head of Operations, it’s very clearly now about taking all stakeholder views into account. We are all collaborators in that network, and we need to keep that close contact going. We need to work in a very agile manner to make sure that we’re dealing with problems before they arise via the rolling weekly NOP meetings, and when they do arise, dealing with them tactically and feeding back to ensure lasting learning and change.

In the medium to longer-term we will need to use elements from the Operational Excellence Plan to work on the application of new measures, to evolve flight planning and improve system connectivity and interoperability. We are making sure that everything is optimised to the benefit of the customer - and stakeholders.

Airports don’t need people sitting around waiting for an aircraft to turn up because of a weather problem that has been known about for three days. We are all getting better at information sharing and the next logical step is much closer collaboration and shared planning to address the challenges when they become clear, rather than wait for them to require last minute action.

What news is there on upgrading the NM’s systems?

The integrated Network Management (iNM) programme of the software system is massively significant and heralds the start of nine years of exciting development and change. This is not akin to moving from an iPhone 3 to an iPhone 13, it’s moving from a Bakelite phone on the kitchen wall to the latest smartphone in one go. It’s more than just a systems upgrade, it’s the systematic re-development of how aircraft trajectories are managed within the network and beyond.

The flight plan goes in the system and once it is accepted it is locked and subject to any regulations. But we’re going to go to a more 4D trajectory-based operation where the trajectory of the flight is planned with target times over key positions, managed actively by NM in collaboration with ANSPs with full B2B data communication. We refine the plan up to an hour before the flight reaches points on its route and then the ANSPs continue to manage the tactical aspect of the individual flight, while we ensure the smooth passage through the network for all flights.

The buffers that currently exist in the network, the airline schedules, the capacity of the ANSP sectors and the runway slots will eventually be rooted out through the efficiency of the new technology - be under no illusion how significant the changes required are and how beneficial the output will be. But it will be five to nine years before we see that really maturing into operational reality – it is that seismic. In this way, the future of the network is truly exciting, while also allowing for significant environmental improvements along the journey and I am so very proud to be part of the team making this possible here at the EUROCONTROL Network Manager.

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