TOPFLIGHT: putting the SESAR vision into action

By Martin Rolfe, NATS Managing Director, Operations 

At NATS, reducing aviation’s environmental impact and saving fuel is as important to us as it is to our customers. Gone are the days when the aviation industry could simply shrug its shoulders and accept that flying was a dirty business – we all have a responsibility, and an opportunity, to act now to minimise the impact that aviation is having on our environment.

Within NATS we have been taking that challenge especially seriously. As part of our environmental strategy we are implementing smarter and more responsive ways to cut emissions having recognised the hugely important role our controllers play in flight efficiency. They now have an extensive training and awareness programme to ensure they consider the environment in everything they do. This enables us to not only help our airlines customers to save fuel and cut emissions, but also to improve operational efficiency.

But despite the many changes that we’ve introduced to how we work, we know that ANSPs or airlines alone do not hold all the answers. We also know that what can be achieved within the constraints of the current ATM concept and supporting technologies is limited. In order to achieve further savings a paradigm shift is required and the European ATM concept needs to be overhauled. Central to this is the research required to ensure that air and ground systems evolve in a compatible manner, and in a way that maximises their potential within the context of a Single European Sky. Collaboration is the key; collaboration through people, procedures and systems.

SESAR is the research mechanism for developing this future concept in Europe. It is a large multi-disciplinary research programme that has been in its development phase for over three years and it is now starting to deliver validated elements of that future ATM concept. By 2032, European air traffic is likely to have doubled and it is SESAR’s vision to accommodate that growth in traffic while maintaining safety levels, minimising delay, reducing costs and lowering carbon emissions.

Recently the SESAR Joint Undertaking – the European Agency appointed to deliver the research – launched a Demonstration Programme to expose some of the more mature elements of the ATM concept to operational use. It is a reflection of NATS’ key role within SESAR, as well as the importance of environmental savings to NATS, that we are leading one of the more ambitious and far reaching projects within the Demonstration Programme – TOPFLIGHT.

Within the project NATS is leading a consortium in developing and trialling a simultaneous optimised transatlantic flight model based on several elements of the SESAR concept, putting SESAR research into action and realising real near-term operational benefits for airlines and ANSPs. TOPFLIGHT aims to demonstrate, on an on-going basis and in a multi-flight environment, methods of achieving operational benefits previously only previously attempted on a single demonstration flight basis.

Phase one of TOPFLIGHT will see 60 transatlantic flights where several factors within the journey – from pushback time, climb and descent profiles, routing and oceanic flight profile – have been optimised to achieve minimal emissions and delay using elements of the SESAR concept. The project aims to break new ground by developing and demonstrating procedures that will allow transatlantic flights to follow a trajectory as close as possible to their Reference Business Trajectories while at the same time remaining de-conflicted and meeting their Arrival Manager allocated times of arrival.

The overall objectives of TOPFLIGHT are;

  • To develop, demonstrate and transition to an airline-driven concept for the gate-to-gate optimisation of flights between North America and Europe based on multiple elements of the SESAR concept.
  • To capture data that will enable the delivery of sustainable operational change to both a complex Terminal Manoeuvring Area and a high density oceanic environment.
  • To identify the requirements the concept would place on future System Wide Information Management (SWIM) infrastructure. This will be done by analysing the data exchanged using current systems during the trials.
    • To synchronise concepts and intercontinental operational changes with both the FAA NextGen Programme and with NAV CANADA.

Quite literally, we are testing the SESAR concept, which is an exciting proposition. It will enable NATS to continue to play a leading role in the long term direction of the SESAR programme, while helping airlines make near term environmental gains. It will also help further cement the benefits already gained from our partnership with the Irish Aviation Authority and the development of the UK/Ireland Functional Airspace Block.

Demonstration flights will be conducted over a 10 month period with up to 60 individual flights in the first phase of the project and over 40 flights a day in the second phase of the project. The benefits of the new procedures will be assessed and quantified using a number of metrics, and compared to current operational procedures, with the first of the these flights due to take off in May 2013. It is our expectation that with the new procedures that TOPFLIGHT will put in place, each optimised trip will save approximately 500Kg in fuel - equivalent to 1.6 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

TOPFLIGHT is being led within NATS’ SESAR Department by Senior Systems Engineer Joe Baker, but will call upon resources and support from throughout our business, from operational controllers at our airports, terminal, en-route, and oceanic centres, to SESAR Programme research staff and NATS Systems Engineering departments. In line with the SESAR principle that Airspace Users should play a key role in defining the concept, the project’s airline partner, British Airways (BA), is responsible for leading the requirements definition for, and the operation of, the trial flights. BA’s role in setting the requirements and then conducting the demonstrations using revenue flights will ensure that TOPFLIGHT is truly focused on real-world airline needs.  NAVCANADA, Boeing, Airbus ProSky and Barco Orthogon will also play key roles in the project.

The long term SESAR vision represents a significant change to Air Traffic Management in Europe and the nature of air navigation services.  TOPFLIGHT is a great opportunity to test elements of the SESAR concept in today’s operation, not only for the value this will have in maturing the concepts, but also in helping us to understand the issues and opportunities we are faced with when transitioning from current operations to the SESAR concept. Upon successful completion of the project our hope is to see those procedures that offer immediate benefit introduced into regular operations for the first time.

TOPFLIGHT is a real example of the SESAR concept in practice, using real flights in a real operational environment.  A key objective is to ensure that the results and potential benefits are understood and shared across the aviation industry, results will be shared with a large number of SESAR projects and stakeholders. Flights will initially take place between London Heathrow and Toronto or Montreal, but we have a real desire to expand the programme to include flights to Boston and New York JKF airports in cooperation with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) NextGen Implementation Plan, with the goal of creating a sustainable gate to gate environmentally optimised flight concept across the North Atlantic.

TOPFLIGHT is an exciting opportunity to prove that environmentally optimised flight based on the SESAR concept is scalable, sustainable and can help meet the challenge of increasing air traffic in Europe. If successful, the trial could have a profound impact on the way the aviation industry works in the future while also representing an important step towards the implementation of the SESAR concept and it’s goals of maintaining safety levels whilst minimising delay, reducing costs and lowering carbon emissions.