Easing Congestion in Europe’s Busy Skies

Unlike existing single runway systems, GBAS technology can support up to four runway operations simultaneously.  (Honeywell)
With the flight environment reaching near-saturation levels and an increase in revenue passenger miles forecasted, modernising airports to improve operation and air traffic efficiency and safety is now critical.  Paolo Carmassi, President of Honeywell Aerospace EMEAI, describes technologies that will help minimise congestion and improve the overall passenger experience.
 Despite decades of innovation in air travel, according to Eurocontrol’s research it now takes approximately 23 minutes longer to fly from London to Paris than it did in 1979.  While the demand for flights has boomed with the introduction of low-cost carriers and the growth of global business, Europe’s air traffic infrastructure has seen only marginal advances.  According to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, passenger numbers in the UK alone more than doubled from 102 million in 1990 to 211 million in 2010.  With 26,000 daily flights across European airspace – a figure expected to grow by approximately 5% annually, according to the European Commission – airports urgently need to update their infrastructure to accommodate this projected growth.
Many of Europe’s leading airports are constrained by ageing air traffic management (ATM) systems.  As airports deal with millions of flights every year, their runways need to be working at peak efficiency to ensure that every passenger’s overall flight experience is smooth, seamless and free from delays.  Subsequently, there is little or no margin for error.
As the world’s skies become increasingly overcrowded, with more passengers, flights and aircraft to manage, the issue of alleviating congestion is now more important than ever.  Furthermore, with rising fuel prices – which, according to IATA research, will account for 27% of airlines’ operating costs this year – the need for technology that enables fuel efficiency is equally important.  SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research), an initiative founded by the European Commission and EUROCONTROL, is committed to executing work programmes, in association with its public and private partners, to drive new technologies to modernise European ATM.  Overall, its objective is to reduce environmental impact by 10%, improve safety by a factor of ten and reduce flight times by eight to 14 minutes, allowing for three times more air traffic by 2020.
Above and beyond ILS
Technology and advanced engineering are the foundations of the aviation industry, playing a central role in helping the industry reduce congestion and improve traffic throughput.  Instrument landing systems (ILS) have been in general use since the 1960s, although the technology and concept dates back to the early 1930s.  The idea of using radio markers as data points was tested operationally in 1929, and faced its first true test during a snowstorm in January 1938 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, when the first scheduled passenger aircraft landed using only ILS.  The concept is still the same today as it was 75 years ago, but technology has evolved, giving us new and improved ways to provide precise guidance to aircraft approaching and landing.  With the number and frequency of flights continuing to rise globally, there is an urgent need to provide an even more accurate method of landing aircraft when visibility is poor.
Despite innovations in ILS technology, the growth in air travel means we are still striving to meet the ATM demands of today and tomorrow.  ILS suffers from a number of technical limitations: namely signal interference, multipath effects (caused by buildings near airports) and its ability to manage just one approach at a time.  These challenges mean airports regularly suffer reduced capacity as visibility worsens.  In the US alone, 15 of the top airports experience more than 25% reduced capacity when ceilings are below 200ft (61m).  In these situations, aircraft are often delayed and forced to circle in holding patterns or, even worse, diverted to alternative airports.  To put this into perspective, the average financial impact to the operator of diverting a typical narrow-body passenger jet for a go-around is approximately US$6,000.  Factor in the inconvenience to passengers and the knock-on impact this can have, and the overall cost is much greater.
To overcome these ILS challenges, the industry is embracing ground-based augmentation systems (GBAS) – which are installed at airports to identify and correct small errors in GPS signals, transmitting the information to arriving and departing aircraft.  GBAS helps make the job of ATM and piloting aircraft far easier, safely increasing an airport’s operational capacity and enabling substantial maintenance and fuel savings by allowing aircraft to fly either complex or straight-in approaches, depending on air traffic demands.  Unlike existing single runway systems, GBAS technology can also support up to four runway operations simultaneously.  Compared to ILS technology, the potential savings could reach up to US$500,000 per system per year in reduced ground and maintenance costs.
On a simplified level, part of the challenge of increasing capacity in the skies is ensuring individual airborne aircraft maintain a safe distance from one another while staying close enough to maximise available flight path space and optimal routing.  New advances in traffic collision avoidance systems (TCAS) can significantly reduce airline operating costs while improving situational awareness and safety.  This next-generation technology reduces operating costs and helps airlines gain efficiencies.  Importantly, it also enables airlines to incorporate ‘in-trail procedures’ (ITP) on transoceanic flights.  ITP is designed to reduce oceanic and remote area aircraft separation by allowing aircraft to fly a more efficient route while maintaining a safe, yet reduced distance from neighbouring traffic.  Pilots can choose a more efficient altitude during transoceanic flight routing and move to adopt routes more quickly than with traditional TCAS systems.
Underpinning all of this is the airborne separation assistance system (ASAS) which allows flight crew to maintain safe, efficient distances from surrounding aircraft through intelligent sequencing and merging techniques.
A better customer experience
Let’s not lose sight of the ultimate goal here: to improve the passenger experience by reducing delays at every possible turn, both in the air and on the ground.  The rapid increase in on-the-ground aircraft-related incidents is actually proving to be a far greater hazard than mid-air incidents.  According to recent Honeywell research, runway collisions – known as ‘incursions’ – happen once a day around the world and runway ‘excursions’, whereby an aircraft overruns or veers off the runway, occur on average 29 times a year at a total cost of US$1 billion to the industry in passenger injuries, aircraft inspections and repairs.
The effective runway safety technology available today could significantly reduce the number of runway accidents by giving pilots accurate information on their position and the runway’s conditions, enabling them to make the best possible decisions for the safety of passengers and crew.  Technology can help address problems associated with airport familiarisation – one of the main causes of incursions – by working to increase flight safety by improving situational awareness on the ground via timely aural and visual advisories to the flight crew during taxi, take-off, landing and rollout.
Looking to the future
It’s evident that the modernisation of ATM systems is fundamental to improving airspace operational efficiency to reduce today’s congestion problems and safely accommodate the forthcoming growth.  As airports and operators begin to adopt these sophisticated technologies, we can gradually overcome the issues at hand to create a safer, more efficient and enjoyable European airspace for passengers and the industry as a whole.

Paolo Carmassi, President of Honeywell Aerospace EMEAI.