Editor's Note

Asia Stands At Major Air Traffic Management Inflection Point

By by Mark Holmes | September 1, 2014
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Asia is set to see phenomenal growth in the numbers of passengers flying to and from the region over the next few years. However, unlike in Europe and the United States, it suffers from a fragmented regulatory environment. This creates unique challenges as the region tries to take advantage of the latest technologies available to improve overall air traffic efficiency.

According to Ken McLean, International Air Transport Association (IATA) regional director for safety and flight operations in Asia Pacific, Asia accounts for around 27 percent of global traffic today. He says the region faces constitutional, institutional and political challenges when implementing strategies across a diverse range of states with different capabilities, political and economic situations. McLean believes the technology is available but the challenge for states in Asia Pacific is implementation of technology across the region.

According to Raymond Li, chief air traffic control officer of procedures and evaluation at Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department, Asia’s economies are continuing to exhibit strong growth and forecasts indicate a 4.5 percent annual economic growth over the next 20 years. Therefore, he expects the total air traffic in the region will also grow at that rate. Additionally, according to ICAO’s latest estimate, passenger traffic will grow at 6 percent annually in 2014 and 2015. Li says that given that Asia Pacific is now the world’s largest region in terms of civil aviation, there is an urgent need to satisfy this demand for air traffic.

“Swift Action”

McLean calls for “swift action,” a common theme when discussing the air traffic management situation in the Asia-Pacific region. “One of the big challenges we face in Asia is congestion, where the demand exceeds capacity, particularly in the South China Sea. Large parts of mainland China and Hong Kong also suffer and swift action is needed in some of the individual pockets to improve capacity,” he says. “While demand is growing rapidly, the delays are growing exponentially. Once you reach capacity limits, the delays can get quite large.”

Chen Chung Hsin, Nanyang Technology University’s (NTU) director of the Air Traffic Management Research Institute, says there is a 10 percent annual growth in domestic and international traffic. And the fact that the size of the fleet serving the region will be tripled over the next 15 years means there is “no question” that capacity (airspace, runways and airports) must be increased very significantly in order to meet demand. An “impossible situation” might arise otherwise, he warns. “The region is really starting to experience air traffic delays,” Hsin adds.

Unfortunately, Asia cannot, at this stage, have a one-size-fits-all approach, such as North America’s FAA can implement and Europe’s single “European Sky” initiative. However, Peter Cabooter, APAC regional director at Airbus ProSky, a company that has been working on technology solutions to create a more effective ATM environment, says he sees “very positive trends.” Cabooter says that, increasingly, different states are working together and investigating to a high degree what’s necessary to combine systems in order to increase efficiency in the region. He says that countries are seeing a lot of growth and that there is a need for it. But he does points out that it is a global issue, and that more government support from a political point of view would help the situation.

Major Airport Hubs

Major airports in the Asia Pacific could suffer if the situation is not improved. Because the region will see robust passenger growth over the next 10 to 20 years, Li says trouble is looming in terms of airspace and airport capacity. He says airports in Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and Beijing are already facing some sort of capacity issues. In order to enhance and resolve this capacity crunch, Li believes there is a need to establish some kind of regional Air Traffic approach.

With the region’s susceptibility to bad weather — especially in the summer months — and typhoons occasionally impacting Taiwan, Hong Kong and a number of big airports, the challenges mount. For example, once severe weather causes a significant capacity reduction at a hub airport, the effects will ripple throughout the other big airports in the region. A robust Air Traffic Flow Management (ATFM) mechanism that operates throughout the region to mitigate this adverse impact would make a significant difference, says Li.

“As to how to reach this stage and establish this ATFM mechanism is subject to further discussion. Meanwhile, we have some small scale ATFM trials scheduled to take place next year amongst Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok airports. We hope that in the light of experience, a regional ATFM mechanism could be put in place to enhance the flow of air traffic at these three hub airports,” Li adds. “We also hope in the years to come, we can expand the trial mechanism and introduce a mature ATFM system to cover other major airports and air navigation service providers in the region.”

Singapore and Hong Kong

Both Singapore and Hong Kong are taking a lead in Asia. In Singapore, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) opened an Air Traffic Management Research Institute. According to Hsin, the target is not only to support the Singaporean government in the investment of ATM and aviation, but also to support neighboring countries and regional organizations in their ATM modernization efforts. He believes harmonization efforts are critical and that simply advancing Singapore’s capability is insufficient.

Hsin believes that setting up the institute will enable the Singaporean government to conduct R&D so that Singapore can be seen as a leader in ATM in the region. Another key is to nurture talent to address the question of long-term sustainability of ATM in Singapore and for the region. “Being a University Institute means we can have the perception of being objective when addressing these questions. We can provide solutions with a regional vision. I think it would be easier to be accepted. We can reach out to neighboring countries in an easier way than maybe CAAS can,” Hsin says.

In Hong Kong, there are also ambitious plans to build a stronger ATM capability. The Civil Aviation Department (CAD) is planning to commission a new ATC center in 2015 and just commissioned a new headquarters last year. These new state-of-the-art facilities will be used to train more aviation professionals. Hong Kong has put in place a wide range of facilities to provide one-stop-shop services to the aviation community in terms of latest technologies, education and sustainability, among others. Similarly, the Airport Authority of Hong Kong (AAHK) is planning to commission a new third runway at the Hong Kong International Airport within in the next 10 years. “As of today, AAHK has submitted the Environmental Assessment Impact study to the government pending approval. Once the environmental permit is obtained, AAHK will go ahead with the mega project. As you can see, all the ingredients for enhancing Hong Kong’s aviation capacity are in the pipeline,” Li says.

In terms of application of new aviation technologies and innovation capabilities, the CAD has implemented a number of new technologies to enhance its air traffic management capabilities. “For example, the recent establishment of an ATFM unit and installation of the Arrival Manager (AMAN) System allow Hong Kong ATC to enhance air traffic flow and the arrival sequencing, which in turn help ensuring a fine balance can be maintained between air traffic capacity and demand. In addition, the CAD will soon have our new Air Traffic Control Systems, which will provide capability to handle expected traffic growth in the next 15 to 20 years,” Li says.


Aerothai is the organization responsible for managing Thailand’s growing capacity needs. The organization is looking to adapt its business models in terms of operational procedures and evolve operational concepts. It believes the country can directly benefit from strong regional cooperation. “A seamless ASEAN Sky is one of the policies we are trying to address with support from international organizations like ICAO. In a way, there is a plan in place for establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) supported by ASEAN Single Aviation Market (ASAM) on the aviation demand side and seamless ASEAN Sky from aviation infrastructure perspective, with Thailand assigned as ATM lead. If we are able to link 10 ASEAN member states together, this will help improve overall efficiency,” says Tinnagorn Choowong, vice president of Air Traffic Management at Aerothai.

Aerothai also has a number of individual objectives: upgrading its tactical Air Traffic Services automation system and establishing an ATM Network Management Center (ATM NMC), which will take care of pre-tactical planning prior to expected air traffic reaching its airspace. Aerothai also wants to make improvements in areas such as information management (aeronautical, flight, and weather information).

Thailand has reached a key inflexion point in terms of capacity. According to Choowong if you look at patterns of traffic in Thailand, 50 percent of traffic is international, 40 percent is domestic and the remaining 10 percent is overflight (international traffic not landing in Thailand). “If we compare the traffic of domestic and international, we can’t deal with the capacity question on our own; we will need to cooperate with other countries. Therefore, we need to grow capabilities to support growth of domestic and international traffic,” he says.

Choowong feels a network of hubs in Asia drive economic and aviation growth. Thus, better hubs will further increase this growth. “We need to enhance the hub network in the region,” he says. “Aerothai needs to be one of the best in the region. But we don’t want to do this on our own; we don’t want to become an oasis in the desert.”

To give an example of its work across the region, Aerothai has helped create an ATM Coordination Group in the region such as the G5 Group (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and IATA), a Mekong ATM Coordination Group (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam including China and Hong Kong China, supported by IATA) and BIMT ATM Coordination Group (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Thailand). “We see collaboration as means to reach the goal of seamless ATM operations. After all, the aviation community expects seamless ATM operations, not just for Thailand, but for the whole region and globally. It is ultimately our job as Thailand’s Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP) to deliver it,” says Choowong.


Hsin says he is “optimistic and excited” for the future, after seeing several working groups being formed, and a great deal of multi-lateral collaboration agreements from ASEAN states. The NTU has been attending and hosting regional meetings and workshops. He says there is a “willingness” to discuss ATM capability from an operational, institutional and regulatory aspect. “One of the first initiatives was to have a single flight plan database. That is what is being thought about. We hosted a workshop last March. We only allowed 85 people to attend but 150 people wanted to come. So, this time in August, we are hosting another workshop. We have set up capacity for up to 250 people,” Hsin says. “Hopefully, by working together, we can bring about actual improvement, not just for Singapore but for the whole region.”

“One of the proposals is to start with air traffic management structure across Asia. We commissioned a report earlier this year to look at air traffic management and what could be done to bring states together and share information to improve overall efficiency. We will be reporting on this study to ICAO and the states later this year,” McLean says.

While the road ahead is still long, progress has happened quickly. McLean says if you step back five years — before the seamless ATM planning process started — the region really did not have a plan. In just five years Asia-Pacific states developed and endorsed a plan. McLean hopes with its study that the states will embrace the recommendations. “I would expect in two years’ time, some kind of regional cooperation in terms of sharing traffic data, particularly around the major traffic flows, so that data available today could be shared between the states allowing them to start planning in advance for traffic. Today, states don’t generally share air traffic data. In two years’ time, we are optimistic that major traffic flows such as the South China Sea will see shared information, and this will act as an effective demonstration for other parts of the region how sharing data can improve efficiency,” he comments.

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