by María Isabel Tomás Rocha, ATM Consultant Think Research
Air transport is a key driver to strengthen the bonds in Europe and enhance its economic competitiveness. Many countries, businesses, communities and citizens rely on aviation. During the COVID-19 pandemic it has become even more clear: loved-ones separated, business stopped and countries begging other countries to relax restrictions to boost their economy through tourism. But whilst air transport is an essential enabler of the economy it comes at a high cost – figuratively as well as literally. Prior to the pandemic there were growing delays due to shortage of capacity, difficulty in adopting innovative technologies, unnecessary emissions and the expensive ATM services when compared to their global peers.
In the last decades, these challenges were never properly addressed – instead very expensive plasters were used to stop the air traffic management system from bleeding. But they weren’t enough and the pressure for urgent action became too high. So through SESAR, the industry came up with an integrated solution that would transform the outdated air traffic management infrastructure – the Digital European Sky. The Digital European Sky uses virtualisation as the path to enable a more sustainable, resilient and inclusive air traffic management system. But, is the economic impact positive?
The new architecture removes most of the inefficiencies by considering three different layers: physical layer, common data layer and the air traffic services (ATS) layer. All these layers have current inefficiencies that can be removed through harmonisation of systems and procedures, rationalisation of infrastructure and operational expenditure and improved efficiency.
In particular, in the physical layer the benefits come from rationalisation of infrastructure by removing CNS assets (mainly VOR and NDB) and planning them on a wider geographical scale to reduce the numbers of certain assets optimising radar coverage. While it is true that these benefits are limited it’s actually due to a good reason. The efforts undertaken in the auxiliary services (communications, navigation, surveillance, meteorological services…) to increase rationalisation of assets over the last decade have taken effect. There is still more to come within the market as we know it today but the real benefit is likely to fall outside the traditional CNS. The high potential comes from building the right network of collaboration to successfully transition into integrated CNS (iCNS) and deploy quickly and simply new technologies and systems.
The common data layer provides all necessary data services using an accessible and secure IT infrastructure so that any ANSP, airline or airport can access the data and collaboratively make the best decisions for individual flights and the network. The development of national and bespoke data systems and assets such as flight data processing systems (FDPs) have experienced an exponential increase in costs making it unsustainable for ANSPs to develop their own isolated systems and increasing the need for collaborations between ANSPs. The benefits in this layer from delivering the digital European sky are twofold. Firstly, the layer is a key enabler of the benefits in the ATS layer and to some extent the physical layer. Secondly, as a way of lowering the costs of providing ATM data services. Such cost savings are significant and mainly come from rationalisation of ATC systems and moving into a cloud based infrastructure.
Most of the inefficiencies of the current system are in the provision of the air traffic services (fragmentation, reaching capacity limits, lack of scalability) and can be removed by achieving a modernisation enabled by Air Traffic Service Providers (ATSPs) collaborating to provide services whilst maintaining sovereignty leading to improved demand-capacity balancing and increased scalability, resilience and reduced environmental impact. And most importantly, a huge potential cost saving – up to 2/3. This benefit comes from increasing ATCO productivity in line with the Operational Excellence Plan, harmonising systems and procedures enabling capacity sharing and avoiding contingency costs.
However, key cost savings in the overall architecture of delivering the Digital European sky come from creating a harmonised system where it’s quicker and cheaper to deploy new innovation than today. And there are not only significant cost savings to the service providers but it’s the whole value chain that benefits economically from a refurbishing of the ATM system. By delivering the digital European sky it’s expected that the costs of avoidable ATFM delays which in 2018 amounted to a total of €1.35 billion in the en-route market will be removed for the benefit of airlines plus the reduction of charges experienced through the reduced costs of ANS and CNS provision.