Connectivity Central to Modernization of Airspace Management

Connectivity Central to Modernization of Airspace Management

In today’s commercial aviation market, the efficient management of airspace is crucial for the smooth operations of airlines. Unfortunately, current airspace management regimes hampered by limited connectivity pose challenges to on-time operations. This is why modernizing these regimes through enhanced connectivity and digitalization is a top priority for regulators and businesses involved in airspace.

Coping With Multiple Challenges

Managing space is a difficult task at the best of times — and these are not the best of times. A case in point: “Over the past three years, European aviation has faced events moving faster than the overall ability to control them, such as the pandemic, war in Ukraine, economic crisis, and climate change,” said Razvan Bucuroiu, head of airspace and capacity at EUROCONTROL, a civil-military body which coordinates air traffic management for 43 states across Europe. Meanwhile, “traffic has been recovering well across the EUROCONTROL network,” he said. “We are expecting [traffic] well over 2022 figures and a recovery rate of up to 95% when compared to 2019.” This rebound is occurring at a time when overflight restrictions caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have reduced the amount of available airspace.

Razvan Bucuroiu,EUROCONTROL
Razvan Bucuroiu,

The overall state of European airspace management has been in decline for a decade, due to the system’s inability to cope with air traffic increases. Since 2013, “the European network has seen a decrease in operational performance as capacity has lagged behind demand,” he said.

According to Bucuriou, there are several reasons for this decrease. For instance, “European airspace still remains fragmented in terms of airspace organization and supporting service provision and infrastructure,” he said. As well, air traffic control (ATC) sectors remain defined by national boundaries. “This leads to lower overall capacity and several flight-path inefficiencies — as the alignment of operational boundaries does not follow traffic flows, this increases the need for handovers and coordination between sectors in different countries,” said Bosman. “A number of measures are regularly taken at network and local level to address capacity enhancements in various areas of the European air traffic management, but they are not sufficient as cross-border aspects are still difficult to address.”


“Fragmentation also arises through smaller than optimal operational units within national Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs),” said Paul Bosman, EUROCONTROL’s head of infrastructure. “These units may have become sub-optimal, for example, as changes in the technology of service provision have increased the optimum size of a center. There is also a duplication of Communications, Navigation and Surveillance Systems for Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM) systems and of associated support services.”

It doesn’t help that the majority of communications with pilots are still conducted vocally through VHF radio, he said, rather than by direct data connections such as EUROCONTROL’s Datalink. “Communication via radio does consume a significant part of air traffic controllers’ (ATCs) working time,” Bosman said. “If more messages could be communicated via Datalink, it would help.”

EUROCONTROL’s assessment is endorsed by air traffic management companies such as Collins Aerospace and Thales Airspace Mobility Solutions.

“The challenges that get in the way of on-time operations are lack of data-sharing in real time across multiple platforms, legacy/analog communications systems, outdated traffic flow management systems, and the ability to quickly recover when an irregular operation does happen,” said Gene Hayman, Collins Aerospace’s director of CAS government services. “Because ANSPs have traditionally procured ATM capability as large and complex, build-to-design, on-premises systems, they tend to have limited capability in sharing with other systems. Yes, these systems can be enhanced and upgraded — but only to a certain extent. In the end, just like any computer, there are inherent technical limitations of these ATM systems that eventually render them obsolete.”

Benjamin Binet,Thales
Benjamin Binet,

“There has been limited sharing of real-time trajectory information between both airborne and ground systems,” added Benjamin Binet, Thales’ vice president of strategy and public affairs for airspace mobility solutions. “Using a single trajectory model for each flight as the single source of truth would provide the best operational efficiency, safety, and needs.”

The takeaway: When it comes to the various elements restricting airspace availability — not just in Europe but worldwide — “all of these factors result in a limitation of the available capacity, a lacking of overall 4D trajectory optimization, high saturation of radio frequencies, limited automation support/high proportion of manual work (leading to heavy processes and high ATC workload), limited sharing of data and lack of interoperability between ANSPs, airspace users and airports, as well as high buffers across the planning and execution chain due to limited predictability reducing actual usage of existing capacity,” Bucuroiu said.

EUROCONTROL is modernizing European airspace management through Common Project 1 (CP1) effort, the international effort to create an integrated, connected and efficient ATC system across the European continent. Shown here, an Emirates A380 landing at the airport in Nice, France.
EUROCONTROL is modernizing European airspace management through Common Project 1 (CP1) effort, the international effort to create an integrated, connected and efficient ATC system across the European continent. Shown here, an Emirates A380 landing at the airport in Nice, France.

Improving Airspace Management Through Technology

Digitally driven aircraft/ground and aircraft/aircraft connectivity is seen as the most practical and promising solution to the limitations affecting airspace capacity. The goal is to get everyone and everything talking to each other digitally in real time, resulting in significantly enhanced situational awareness, closer aircraft spacing without sacrificing safety, and more responsive ATC management.

This is why AIR Lab — a joint venture between Thales and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore — is working on Trajectory Based Operations (TBO), which enables aircraft continuous descents into major airports for greater operational efficiency and reduced carbon emissions/fuel burn. As well, AIR Lab is working on integrating uncrewed aircraft into ATC operations, to ensure the safety of commercial airliners. “They are providing customers with the option to integrate best-in-breed systems and components within their ATM system via OpenSky Platform for the best possible operational outcomes suited to their specific environment and operational needs,” Binet said.

Meanwhile, Collins Aerospace is focused on developing products and services that enable a fully connected aviation ecosystem. To make this happen, “we work closely with ANSPs, airlines and airports to leverage our ecosystem of aviation-related data, network connectivity, and ATM systems,” said Hayman. “By integrating real-time data across all stakeholders and operators, we build more predictability into the ATM ecosystem — improving collaboration and stakeholder situational awareness, which leads to more efficient airspace operations.”

In this new connected world of airspace management, ATM vendors such as Collins and Thales are making life easier for EUROCONTROL and other ATM operators by provisioning cutting-edge ATC solutions directly, rather than selling them as products to be implemented by their clients. “The service-based approach puts the responsibility of deploying and enhancing ATM system platforms on service providers, relieving ANSPs of the headaches in procuring, maintaining, and eventually running life-support on critical system architecture,” Hayman said. “Service providers are inherently experts at managing the entire life cycle of a solution, to include critical backend infrastructure, so that customers can simply utilize capability as a service.”

EUROCONTROL is spearheading the modernization of European airspace management through the implementation of Common Project 1 (CP1), the international effort to create an integrated, connected and efficient ATC system across the continent. “EUROCONTROL, as Network Manager, is one of the key players in the implementation of the CP1 Implementing Rule requirements,” said Bucuroiu. “A new Network Concept of Operations has been developed with all the operational stakeholders and it was adopted in 2022. New concepts of operations are developed at network level for the 4D Trajectory Management, Air Traffic Flow and Capacity Management, Airspace Management and Data Management.”

In addition, EUROCONTROL has launched ‘Network Strategic Projects’ to foster Cooperative Traffic Management (covering air traffic flow and capacity management evolutions), Flight Plan and Flight Data Evolutions (covering the implementation of FF-ICE and future trajectory based operations), and advanced flexibility of airspace to further civil/military cooperation. Further such projects include Free Route Airspace (covering the implementation of new concepts for airspace design and utilization), Integration of New Entrants (covering the network introduction of commercial space operations, high altitude operations and drones) and Flight Efficiency Implementation (on sustainable evolutions of the airspace utilization).

“A major Airspace Restructuring Program aimed at implementing major airspace changes at the European level until 2030 has been also implemented and is progressing well,” said Bosman. “On the infrastructure side, initiatives have been taken on the implementation of Datalink, on CNS infrastructure resilience and sustainable evolutions, on the implementation of SWIM (system–wide information management) and on cyber security.”

The current edition of EUROCONTROL’s Network Operations Plan covering the period 2023-2027 also includes major ATM system upgrades intended to be implemented for 41 out of the continent’s 68 Area Control Centers. “This represents a vast modernization program at local level that will be synchronized as part of the cooperative work put together between EUROCONTROL as Network Manager and the Air Navigation Service providers,” Bucuroiu said. “These new ATM systems will provide for enhanced ATC support tools, enhanced decision-making tools, enhanced trajectory calculation, and better utilization of Datalink.”

Enhanced Communications is Central

When it comes to modernizing air traffic control, the driver behind enhanced connectivity is improved communications between aircraft and the ground, and each other. The more detailed, accurate and responsive that these communications are, the more that can be done to increase airspace capacity safely. This, above everything else, is what airspace management needs to accomplish — fitting more and more aircraft into the same limited space.

At EUROCONTROL, “the big push on the communications side concerns Datalink, which complements traditional voice messaging and improves the chances of instructions and acknowledgements being correctly transmitted and received,” said Bosman. “It can be thought of as a type of SMS between Air Traffic Control Officers (ATCOs) and pilots, specifically tailored to ATC needs with a limited word set. Datalink reduces workload, boosting safety, capacity, and efficiency.”

The inclusion of Datalink equipment on board aircraft operating in Europe’s airspace was mandated under a 2009 European Union law. “However, Datalink services have already evolved beyond that law’s scope, driven by more sensors becoming available on board aircraft,” he said. “Today, there is a concerted drive to automate European ATC — the Digital European Sky — to cope with significant increases in air-ground communications demands. Airlines’ operational communications (AOC) requirements are also growing relentlessly, as more aircraft data are streamed to airline operations centers and into ‘digital twins’. As both ATC and AOC services use the same Datalink technology, it is being pushed to its limits. At some point in the near future it will not cope, which is why the SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research 3 Joint Undertaking) FCI (Future Communications Infrastructure) project is now of vital importance.”

Airspace Mobility Solutions also sees “enhanced communications and connectivity as a key driver of digitalization in ATM,” said Binet. “They support sharing more data in real-time between the aircraft and ground systems in a safe and secure manner.” So does Collins Aerospace: “As we move to an info-centric airspace design, having a hyperconnected ATM ecosystem is critical,” Hayman said. “This requires having ubiquitous communications in place so that real time data sharing can happen with each stakeholder or operator in the airspace.”

A Big Payoff

EUROCONTROL and the European Union’s efforts to modernize ATC on that continent will be poised to deliver a big payoff in improved airspace capacity and safe management, “Timely implementation of all the initiatives described above, by 2030, the European ATM network should benefit from an increase of up to 50% of average sector throughput,” said Bosman. “This will have an immediate positive influence on the on-time performance of airspace users. In addition, from an environmental sustainability point of view compared to the start of this decade, the cumulative benefits of airspace improvements would represent savings of 1,000 million nautical miles flown, i.e., the equivalent of six million tons of fuel saved, or reduced emissions of 20 million tons.”

And there’s more. In a hyperconnected ATM environment, “ANSPs can expect to have greater control and predictability of traffic inbound, outbound and within their airspace, including for terminal areas and airports,” Binet said. “This means improved capacity of major airports, supporting increased air traffic movements with existing airports; greater sharing of real-time data between airlines, aircraft and ground systems for improved management of the flight from beginning to end; and improved safety with the inclusion of new conflict detection capabilities based on the increased sharing of aircraft data with ground systems.”

Right now, “it’s estimated that a lack of ATC Datalink capacity costs €1-1.3 billion ($1.09-1.41 billion) annually” in European airspace flight delays and related issues,” said Bosman. “The new technologies being considered under FCI would provide extra data capacity that would allow ATC to boost airspace capacity by 11%, enabling the introduction of four-dimensional trajectory management, further improving flight efficiency, and reducing fuel burn and greenhouse gas emissions per flight.”

To achieve this capacity increase, over 8,500 aircraft would have to have FCI equipment installed by 2029, if 2019-type traffic levels are reached in 2024. “This subset of the overall fleet represents the aircraft operating 85% of the flights above 28,500 feet — which is the threshold for benefits to kick in,” Bucuroiu said. “Retrofitting existing aircraft for FCI would accelerate the accrual of benefits and expand the overall benefit pool.”

EUROCONTROL is focused on improving communications with Datalink. It complements voice messaging and improve accuracy of instructions and acknowledgements. Datalink reduces workload, boosting safety, capacity and efficiency, EUROCONTROL says.
EUROCONTROL is focused on improving communications with Datalink. It complements voice messaging and improve accuracy of instructions and acknowledgements. Datalink reduces workload, boosting safety, capacity and efficiency, EUROCONTROL says.

Where We Stand Now

In a world short of good news, there is good news aplenty when it comes to airspace modernization.

“To date, a significant part of the benefits expected from the Airspace Restructuring Program has been already achieved, mainly through the implementation of the cross-border Free Route Airspace initiatives,” said Bosman. “The implementation of Datalink is also progressing very well with almost all ANSPs having implemented the required improvements and a gradual increased use in operations of Datalink, plus full implementation of SWIM requirements in the EUROCONTROL Network Manager systems. More and more aircraft are also being equipped with Datalink technologies, with over 80% of the aircraft already being Datalink-capable, and over 80% of them logged onto Datalink services.”

In a given four-week period, EUROCONTROL has been seeing almost three million Datalink transactions involving over 300 aircraft operators and 100 aircraft types. Such activity saves over 600,000 minutes of communications time, while also identifying over 100 ‘stuck microphone’ events, which is a very tangible safety benefit. Binet said that European airspace management is also seeing progress in “SESAR projects including Conflict Detection and Resolution, trials with Extended Projected Profile (EPP), and the TBO research in AIR Lab.”

This being said, obstacles remain in the path of European airspace management modernization. These include implementing true cross-border airspace structures and services; addressing current staff shortages; harmonizing operational procedures; ATM systems and ATCO licensing; and accelerating the overall digitalization of ATM overall.”

“ATM is, understandably, a rather conservative industry,” said Bosman. “Change happens rather slowly. It may take over 20 years for a fleet of aircraft to be renewed, with perhaps longer roll-over periods for ATC infrastructure. So, modernization is gradual and requires careful planning.”

Collins Aerospace believes that “culture and funding” are the biggest obstacles. “Sometimes decision makers are concerned about losing control,” Hayman observed. “But using a service-based business model simply means not owning the infrastructure or assets, you still have the capability or data to perform the ATM functions necessary for the mission.”

Nevertheless, airspace modernization coupled with improved communications connectivity offers immense value to commercial airlines and ATC operators in ensuring on-time operations while maintaining safety standards. By leveraging advanced technologies and data exchange capabilities, the limitations imposed by current airspace management regimes can be overcome — leading to a more efficient and connected aviation industry capable of supporting growth.