By by Woodrow Bellamy III | October 1, 2014
The Single European Sky (SES) initiative and NextGen are two of the most transformative Air Traffic Management (ATM) technology modernization projects in the history of the global aviation industry. New technology currently being deployed throughout the United States’ National Airspace System (NAS) and the Eurozone will allow Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs) to exchange data communications with Flight Management Systems (FMS) and pilots to fly more optimal, fuel-efficient flight paths. The great news for avionics manufacturers, airlines, business aviation and all other elements of the global aviation industry is that the decision-makers implementing these two projects are building the projects in a collaborative way, ensuring that these two regions carrying the lion’s share of the world’s air traffic can accommodate for future projected increases in air traffic.
According to the United Kingdom’s Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP), National Air Traffic Services (NATS), nearly 3,000 aircraft fly between Canada, the United States and Europe. That number will continue to rise, with both the FAA and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) projecting global air traffic to double over the next two decades. In recent years, both the NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC) in the United States and the Single European Sky ATM Research Joint Undertaking (SESAR JU) have added members that work for private and public organizations within their counterpart’s region to serve as advisory and observatory members. This has ensured that the equipage mandates, flight procedures and protocols for pilots, ATCs, maintenance technicians and all the other people who make planes “go” everyday, are dealing with similar systems in these two regions of the world.
“This isn’t a contest,” says Chris Benich, vice president of regulatory affairs at Honeywell Aerospace and member of the NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC). Benich stressed that the SES and NextGen projects should not be viewed as being in competition, but rather both are necessary to accommodate for future increases in air traffic in the U.S. and Europe, where modernization can serve as a set of best practices for regions with growing aviation industries, such as the BRIC nations: Brazil, Russia, India and China. “Honeywell’s involvement really as a member of the SESAR Joint Undertaking [is] contributing to the technology development. We’re very similarly contributing to various NextGen developments and then we’re coordinating across our technology groups to ensure alignment,” says Benich.
While SES and NextGen have common goals when it comes to increasing airspace capacity and efficiency, each region has outlined different paths to the end of their ATM modernization projects. According to Jens Hennig, vice president of operations for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), the FAA probably has an easier path toward modernization with NextGen. Hennig has attended advisory committee meetings for both the SES and NextGen projects.
“As the FAA moves forward with its programs, they control each of the schedules, including the technological implementation themselves. And the airspace is already uniform,” says Hennig. “Europe’s problem is you’re dealing with a much more complicated governing set of bodies. You have multiple different EU-level agencies, the commission, the parliament, Eurocontrol and EASA, that each have a say and that is then further complicated by national regulators and the ownership of the airspace by each country. So their energy and some of their implementation problems in recent years have really been tied to that segmented airspace, the Functional Airspace Blocks (FAB) transition. It’s a big difference, I think it’s important for Europe to ensure that the implementation of the FABs is successful because a lot of their immediate benefits will come just from having a cleaner airspace structure.”
As mentioned by Hennig, the biggest goal of the Single European Sky project is mentioned in the name of the program. Unlike the United States, which has a unified Air Traffic Control system across its territory, Europe features 29 different zones of major ATC centers. This means operators must fly routes that are longer than necessary, as pilots in-flight are constantly changing centers along their routes. For example, the Brussels, Belgium to Geneva, Switzerland route is an 80-minute flight that transfers pilots to five different national ATC centers, changing the flight profile based on procedures and instructions from each center. The SES project’s goal is to reduce the total number of national ATC centers from 29 to nine.
“The overall performance of air navigation services in Europe has not improved since 2004, when the basic legal framework of the SES entered into force,” says Michael Nachtigaeller, SESAR program manager for Deutsche Lufthansa. “The national fragmentation of Europe’s ATM still causes huge inefficiencies in delays and route extensions, amounting to several billion of euros in unnecessary costs and millions of tons of avoidable carbon emissions every year.”
Independent ANSPs across Europe’s 44 states are facing a major shift in the way they manage flights, with some expressing resistance to the FABs, which will provide the true unification of Europe’s ATM structure. But in order to improve throughput and efficiency throughout the airspace, the SES will have to put all nine FABs in place. So far, only two FABs have been implemented — U.K.-Ireland and Denmark-Sweden. The remaining seven include: a Northern European FAB, combining the ANSPs of Estonia, Finland, Latvia and Norway; the Baltic FAB of Poland-Lithuania; the central FAB of France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland; a second central FAB of the Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina; the Bulgaria-Romania FAB; and finally the Italy, Malta, Greece and Cyprus FAB. Eurocontrol is looking to begin implementing these FABs between 2015-2018.
The good news for Europe, though, is that other aspects of the SES project are moving steadily into the deployment phase. In March, Airbus, Eurocontrol, Honeywell, Indra Noracon and Thales organized the first European i4D flight trial, a concept that integrates time into the three dimensional (3-D) aircraft trajectory, giving it a fourth dimension (4-D).
In addition to the i4D trials, Lufthansa is heavily involved in evaluating the operational usage of several aspects of the program, according to Jens Ritter, head of flight operations and fuel efficiency for Lufthansa. “The main task of SESAR deployment involves the synchronized rollout of developed technologies, such as pilot data link communications between all stakeholders in the air traffic management value chain. The operational usage of the data link communications depends on the readiness of both, airline and air navigation service provider. Lufthansa is involved in a SESAR project which evaluates the readiness of the technology for operational usage,” says Ritter.
Between 2012 and May 2014, Lufthansa, in collaboration with Deutsche Flugsicherung and Eurocontrol, participated in the Free Route Airspace Maastricth and Karlsruhe (FRAMAK) project. FRAMAK demonstrated cross-border free route capabilities extending over ANSP AORs comprising several major hubs and an extremely high air traffic density.
“By that project, 466 directs with an average reduction is 0.5 nm per flight could be implemented, which are actually available now for all airspace users, leading to substantial fuel reductions,” says Nachtigaeller.
The biggest accomplishment of the NextGen program this year was the completion of the ground infrastructure for the nationwide Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) network. The network will help open up some of the other capabilities of the NextGen program, according to Ed Sayadian, vice president of air traffic management with Exelis. “ADS-B is a better surveillance technology, it’s more accurate, it’s cheaper and it provides update rates that are a lot more frequent and reliable than the legacy radar system. One of the things you can do with that is if you have a lot more accuracy in your system you can reduce the existing error margins that you’ve put into your separation standards,” says Sayadian. “Then you can help to reduce separations across the board — in oceanic airspace, around the airports — that benefit everyone because it increases throughput. But in order to achieve something like that all the systems need to be able to support an operational improvement like that. For instance, [En Route Automation] ERAM needs to be able to take the ADS-B data and display it on the air traffic controller display and be able to identify what operations the different aircraft are going to perform.”
Going forward, Exelis will continue to maintain the ADS-B network and will also look to expand its capabilities. Expansion will include the implementation of three new sites on the east coast of Mexico to provide additional coverage in the Gulf of Mexico. Exelis is also working with several airlines that fly in the Caribbean region to install more ground stations in the region to provide additional coverage.
“As we continue to try to get more benefit and exploit the NextGen technologies, we’ll be updating and advancing the network deployment to provide new capabilities moving forward to support things like UAVs, to provide backup capabilities to GPS, and more,” says Sayadian.
ERAM, a replacement for the 40-year-old En Route Host computer and backup system used at 20 FAA Air Route Traffic Control Centers throughout the NAS, is designed to allow faster processing of route requests and flight route changes. ERAM deployment is making significant progress as well. According to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), currently 19 of 20 ERAM testing sites have achieved Initial Operational Capability (IOC).
Another sign of progress in the NextGen program is the completion of the Optimization of Airspace Procedures in the Metroplex (OAPM) in Houston. The Houston Metroplex project is part of the FAA’s goal to improve the way aircraft use flight routes and access airports at 13 Metroplexes in some of the most congested regions of the NAS. In June of this year, 50 new airspace procedures aimed at allowing operators to take advantage of modern avionics systems and Performance Based Navigation (PBN) flight procedures went into effect. The new procedures include: 20 new Area Navigation (RNAV) Standard Terminal Arrivals, 20 new RNAV Standard Instrument Departures (SID), six new conventional STARs and 6 modified Instrument Landing System (ILS) transitions, among others. The FAA estimates the new procedures will result in an annual fuel savings of $9.2 million for aircraft flying in the airspace, three million gallons of fuel saved per year and 31,000 metric tons of carbon savings annually.
The NextGen Advisory Committee has also taken a more active role in prioritizing certain aspects of NextGen deployment. At the RTCA 2014 conference, NAC Chair and retired Alaska Airlines CEO, Bill Ayer, said the four new priorities include PBN, Surface Operations, Multiple Runway Operations and the Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) aspect of the DataComm program. The first priority, PBN, allows operators to perform modern flight procedures such as Required Navigation Performance (RNP), Area Navigation (RNAV) and Standard Instrument Departures, among others. But if airlines and operators want to use these procedures, the FAA has to implement and approve the procedures at different airports by the FAA, which takes time.
“The PBN piece, that’s pretty well defined, that’s our metroplex projects, that’s RNAV, the RNP, and the benefit there is that everybody wins if you use PBN properly,” says Brian Will, director of airspace modernization at American Airlines. “What happens is we fly a shorter distance so we win with reduced fuel burn and the reduced fuel burn results in fewer carbon emissions, so the environment wins. If we build a really efficient arrival into an airport where we’re at idle power there’s less noise so the community wins. And the bottom line in any competitive business is if we can lower our costs, if we’re not burning as much fuel, if we’re not flying as much time then as a logical extension you can either hold ticket prices down or even cut ticket prices by saying we’re being so efficient we want to attract more customers. So there’s nobody that loses with PBN and that’s been the neat part of that.”
Finally, Ed Bolton, the FAA’s assistant administrator for NextGen, says that the agency will release a new roadmap outlining the official timeline of the implementation of NextGen by Oct. 18, which will finalize implementation through 2025.
By the end of the year, officials from the FAA, Eurocontrol and members of the SESAR JU team plan on releasing an official NextGen-SES harmonization report, which will outline the harmonization between the two projects. One of the major differences, as it stands right now, regards the equipage mandates being required for the Single European Sky and NextGen projects. While the FAA has only mandated ADS-B Out equipage by 2020, Europe has a different schedule. By Feb. 5, 2015, all aircraft operating in European airspace above 28,500 feet must be equipped with a Private Mode-CPDLC data link system.
“The implementation date does not have to be the exact same, in fact in some respects having a little bit of a different implementation date helps just for availability of the upgrades and the supply chain type of issues. But what we don’t want to have happen is that we have a completely different set of technology or a different version of it to be implemented one year and then the next year a different country other than the U.S. has a different upgraded version of that,” says Benich. “We really want to settle on a set of upgrades that are consistent between the U.S. and Europe and, of course, the other implication is that the rest of the world starts to follow that.”