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With travel rebounding fast to pre-COVID levels, the industry faces significant congestion challenges, as headlines globally show. This issue is not restricted to passengers in the airport, but the strain is also back on air navigation service providers (ANSPs) for the efficient and safe movement of aircraft. Congestion of the global airspace is once again a topic for air transport, along with the associated costs of delays and rising emissions.

These are significant challenges for a sector already under pressure to reduce its environmental impacts to become net-zero by 2050 and build back leaner following the crippling financial effects of the pandemic.

Today, SITA supports the industry’s carbon net-zero journey to improve efficiency through technology. Operational efficiencies can help the industry save up to 10% of carbon emissions. In one of our latest explorations to support airspace optimization, we are collaborating with air traffic management (ATM) solution specialist SkySoft-ATM. Combining SkySoft’s capabilities with SITA’s technology solutions, we aim to assist ANSPs in better managing the airspace and supporting more efficient air traffic management (ATM) operations.

The challenges of air traffic management today

It’s important to state first the complexity of air traffic management. On the ground, air traffic control (ATC) has the hard job of safely and efficiently tracking and managing thousands of aircraft each day. Guiding pilots through the airspace, and maintaining safety, requires good communication and collaboration. But information flow between an aircraft and the air traffic control center covering the respective airspace is not optimal because air transport operations remain rather siloed today despite efforts.

Today’s air traffic management relies on inefficient legacy systems, as reflected by the increasingly crowded skies. For passengers, it is time wasted on planes circling before landing. For airlines, flight delays cost money. In a large and busy airspace like Europe, for example, this represents billions of euros every year.

Research by the University of Westminster estimated the costs of delays associated with air traffic flow management to be €100 every minute for European airlines. The 2014 study is several years old, so we can probably assume the expense to be higher today. According to EUROCONTROL’s Aviation Intelligence portal, there were 964,041 minutes of en-route air traffic flow management delays in April 2022 in European airspace.

Considering the impact of COVID-19 on revenue and the rising price of fuel, excess fuel use associated with indirect and inefficient flight paths and congestion in the air will, without doubt, add further strain to the bottom line as well as have wider environmental ramifications.

Several state programs are in place to modernize air traffic from a financial and environmental need – for example, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) and Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) in Europe cover many initiatives. However, the implementation of some of these initiatives, for instance, the European mandate for Trajectory-Based Operations (TBO) are many years away due to regulatory and governance issues around the airspace.

But ANSPs do not have to wait for these reforms to start making positive impacts today. New ATM innovations can give ANSPs a head start on driving operational efficiencies while lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

Optimizing airspace with technology

As an industry-owned organization, SITA is committed to supporting aviation’s key challenges by developing collaborative and intelligent digital solutions. Our joint Proof of Concept (POC) with SkySoft will adapt SITA’s OptiFlight solution to SkySoft’s air traffic management system to bring the same benefits to ATM as it does for airlines today. The POC aims to demonstrate that the solution operates effectively in the working environment, enables greater collaboration between ANSPs and airlines, makes operational improvements, and reduces emissions.

OptiFlight provides airline pilots with direct routing recommendations by leveraging machine learning on historical data and 4D weather forecasts so that pilots can request their optimized trajectories to ATC. However, due to the lack of flow between the cockpit and ATC center today, the controller is unaware of the pilot’s intentions, and directs are not visually displayed in the same way as a filed flight plan.

The integration of OptiFlight and SkySoft’s air traffic management system for the POC will permit the recommendations on ATC displays. It will allow controllers to anticipate and analyze direct route recommendations, integrate them with trajectory management tools, and check that safety is maintained.

This enhancement in data sharing will facilitate ATC decision-making. OptiFlight’s recommendations, such as shortcuts and more optimal descent approaches, would have a higher chance of being granted. The benefits of this would include improved collaboration between the cockpit and ATC and a more efficient airspace – reducing fuel burn, costs, and carbon emissions.

The potential today

While ATM modernization initiatives will take some time to implement, leading ANSPs can take advantage of new technologies to improve their operations today. In SITA, we are evolving some of our proven solutions and choose to actively co-innovate with customers, partners like SkySoft, and universities to help solve the industry challenges of today and tomorrow.

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