Today our skies are busier than ever, with more flight operations and more passengers and cargo generating more revenue throughout the global economy. More than 3 billion passengers take to the air annually, and the International Air Transport Association forecasts long-term average annual passenger traffic will grow five percent annually.
To address this unprecedented expansion, we are in the midst of a complete transformation in the global airspace structure, driven by timely access to critical information. We are moving from our historical standard – one of air traffic control – to a more flexible and efficient standard, air traffic management. This paradigm shift can yield improved safety, efficiency, environmental responsibility and customer satisfaction. And it all relies on the exponential growth in our industry’s ability to rapidly access, disseminate and interpret a vastly intensified flow of quality data – reliably, resiliently and securely.
Moving from control to management
Today, air traffic control is based on the idea of prediction. In this model – which has been the status quo for generations – aircraft position is interpolated via a combination of ground-based radar, procedures and human interaction. To facilitate this system, pilots and controllers exchange requests and responses within a rule-based structure, with all actions resting in the hands of the controller – the equivalent of “Mother, may I?”
This rigid model can quickly create aviation’s butterfly effect, with small changes rippling through the system to cause major delays: a possibility of a storm in one city results in a handful of canceled flights to ensure aircraft and crew can operate somewhere else. But those cancellations often begin to spread, meaning that by the end of a day, flights might be delayed or canceled at multiple airports across the nation and even beyond. Moreover, while pilots and controllers operate with one set of data, flight dispatch has different information.
But a new model offers new possibilities. In an air traffic management model, the paradigm shifts to one of management: The controller no longer holds singular control, but instead manages automated processes for a more optimized result. In this model, airlines, airports, air traffic managers, dispatch, pilots and transportation security have seamless access to Richard Heinrich Director of Strategic Initiatives, Commercial Systems Airspace: Using information to move from control to management continued 21 the same information at the same time, removing ambiguity via a process called Collaborative Decision Making.
For instance, consider weather information, one of the critical information elements affecting safe and timely operation of the airspace. With reliable, resilient and secure connections, we can merge space-based weather observations, ground radar, airborne weather radar and weather data derived from sensors aboard commercial airliners into a near-real-time blended picture. This intensely vivid weather picture—retrieved from a common storage environment – can significantly improve weather forecasts, enhancing safety and improving decision making.
Enhancing security through rich information
Access to such a rich and varied stream of data can also make the data and decision making more secure. Consider the heightened difficulty for those who would attempt to compromise the information within a system: That information—gleaned from a multiplicity of sources—is now changing in near real time, making it less vulnerable to tampering. And there is also operational security, afforded by all decision makers having access to that common information.
But that’s only the start. Adaptive, multi-layer security will also ensure that the information and the decision-making processes are robust. Communication exchanges, surveillance data processing, airspace operations, collaborative decision making, etc., will all bring their unique methods of consuming that information to improve the protection envelope while minimizing the impact of system overhead.
Optimizing for the benefit of all
Think about the verbiage we use to talk about advanced airspace operations: “Optimized Profile Climb.” “Optimized Profile Descent.” “Optimized Flight Profile.” This optimization comes from not thinking of our aviation ecosystem as a fragmented series of ground systems, airborne systems, planning tools, etc., but as a true “system of systems,” with aircraft, flight operations and the back office all acting as nodes on a greater network, assessing the impact of any decision on a single user and everyone.
The availability of real-time information—shared among all the players—can result in real efficiencies for passengers and airlines by allowing gates to be assigned more dynamically. This can also mean less ground time between flights and, perhaps, even additional stages per day. In fact, the net result could quickly become the equivalent of purchasing another aircraft—without any associated cost or overhead.
The net result could become the equivalent of purchasing another aircraft—without any associated cost or overhead.
But there’s also great benefit to the system as a whole: Improved routings will reduce fuel consumption, which will decrease emissions and improve the environmental footprint. Passengers will benefit from improvements in on-time departures and arrivals. And airlines will benefit through improved asset utilization and enhanced system performance.
And in the future, information will allow a distributed system to essentially “heal” itself if there’s a system fault, before those faults cause serious issues. By mining the data for trends, we can begin to better predict failures before they happen, leading to better decisions earlier, and improved report and overall safety. In fact, we can already see tantalizing possibilities of this today. Many of today’s congested airports utilize Flight Interval Management, a process where controllers and flight crews share information to dynamically manage and optimize spacing during arrivals, like beads on a string.
How do we get from here to there?
Although these improvements in efficiency will ultimately pay for themselves, will implementation be hindered by stringent certification requirements or other challenges?
As I mentioned, we see enticing possibilities even in today’s airspace environment. Regulators are already responding with new certification philosophies using a risk-based certification process that carefully evaluates safety benefits. For example, small general aviation aircraft are gaining unprecedented advantage from tablet devices that bring a wealth of information to the cockpit, including real-time traffic and weather data. The improved situational awareness and enhanced safety gained by assessing traffic and avoiding intense weather or icing conditions is far more beneficial than restricting it through brittle regulation.
There is no question: We are on the cusp of a new day—one where information enables enhanced operations, improves system efficiency and ensures that every flight operation is safer than yesterday. Most important, it means greater efficiency and cost savings for the end user and an enhanced quality experience for the passenger.