Air traffic management: An environmental solution for aviation

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

This article is part of our special report Greening aviation.

Global interoperability and measurable targets are key requirements for a modernised system offering significant reductions in aviation fuel burn and CO2 emissions, writes Antonio De Palmas, president for European Union and NATO relations at Boeing.

"Climate change is a serious global concern, and the European Union has placed considerable emphasis on addressing it effectively. The impact of climate change presents a significant challenge for commercial aviation. At Boeing, we are addressing commercial jet carbon emissions on three fronts. First of all, we build the most innovative and fuel efficient aircraft possible. Second, we are actively testing various advanced, sustainable biofuels with the goal of commercialisation within 5-8 years. And third, we are actively developing technologies and systems for a modernised air traffic system to enhance safety, reduce congestion and delays, and lower the cost of aviation and its impact to the environment.

Air Traffic Management (ATM) improvements represent the greatest near-term environmental opportunities for significant reductions in aviation fuel burn and CO2 emissions, thereby contributing to the European Union's emission reduction targets. In the Eurocontrol Performance Review Report 2008, the total cost related to flight inefficiency in Europe is estimated to be in the order of  €4-7 billion, of which about one third is related to fuel costs and two thirds related to the cost of time (aircraft utilisation, maintenance and staff costs). Improved air traffic management operational efficiencies will streamline flights, reduce delays and increase the use of more fuel-efficient routes and landing approaches. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), "cutting flight times by one minute per flight on a global basis would save 4.8 million tons of CO2 every year."

Aside from the environmental aspects, ATM modernisation will bring tangible benefits to the travellers of Europe through reduction of travel times, delays and increasing airport capacity. Near-term delivery of the Single European Sky will underpin not only a safer and more effective Air Traffic Management system, including more efficient routing and reduced time in the air, but also a more environmentally-efficient air transport system.

As agencies across the globe are modernising their systems, with the Europe and the US leading the way, it is important to recognise that it is a complex road that lies ahead. That's why we can't emphasise enough that industry, regulators, airlines and airports need to work together.

Industry progress

At Boeing, we contribute to ATM modernisation on several fronts. First, our airplanes are equipped with advanced technologies that enable and take advantage of current and future ATM system improvements. Second, we continue to develop technology-based solutions that optimise routings, minimise delays and holding patterns and capitalise on precision technologies in modern aircraft that are often left unexploited in today's system. Through our experience as a large-scale systems integrator and our expertise in network-centric operations, we are helping to create an information architecture that enables real-time sharing of precision data. As our airplanes are flown around the world, we are uniquely positioned to bring together all stakeholders to help ensure global interoperability.

Boeing's Tailored Arrival concept, which increases airplane arrival efficiency by establishing a predictable continuous descent rather than the current fuel intensive step-down descent, is a move in the right direction. A shining example of a successful partnering is our cooperation with the Dutch Knowledge and Development Centre Mainport Schiphol, Air Traffic Control the Netherlands (LVNL) and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, and Eurocontrol's Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre to advance Tailored Arrivals. The current trials include the use of a ground automation tool, the Speed and Route Adviser (SARA), designed to enhance Tailored Arrivals. Estimates suggest possible fuel savings equal to 3,000 tons per year, with corresponding reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.

Working together for seamless global operations

In 2008, Boeing and Airbus signed an agreement to work together to ensure global interoperability in air traffic management as part of an effort to help reduce the impact of aviation on the environment. The result of that agreement is a partnership to ensure aircraft integration into a transformed system and supporting roles in the US on the Next-Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) and Europe's Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) program. In addition to the need to work across the Atlantic to ensure interoperability to maintain a safe and efficient system, it is equally important to leverage resources to maximise these benefits and accelerate transformation. The US Department of Transportation's budget for the fiscal year 2011 includes $1.14 billion for the Next Generation Air Transportation System. That figure represents more than a 30% increase in funding for the FAA's programme to improve the efficiency, safety and capacity of the US aviation system.

Boeing is also an active member of the Atlantic Interoperability Initiative to Reduce Emissions (AIRE), a joint European/US effort to collaboratively develop ATM improvements that will benefit the environment. It will be important for Europe and the US to continue to look to these shared opportunities.

Performance metrics

While industry has a role to play in transforming the system, it is incumbent on our governments to ensure that the modernisation programme realises its optimal potential. Europe and the US should collaborate on performance metrics to ensure that the goals and objectives of a more efficient system are being realised. Measurements of outcomes versus activities are important in determining whether progress towards transformation is being made. It enables us to answer questions such as 'Are we doing the right thing? and 'Are our efforts actually improving safety, capacity, efficiency, etc?'.

Boeing believes an annual analysis of the measurements below would provide a clear picture as to the status of transformation and ensure that funding, including significant taxpayers' money, is being spent on projects that are improving the system. By committing to an objective set of metrics, the EU and the US can better gauge where gaps exist.

  • Safety: Reduction in annual fatal accident rates for commercial and general aviation.
  • Flight Efficiency: Reduction in average actual and/or scheduled gate-to-gate travel times for a nationally representative set of city-pair routes
  • Runway Productivity: Increase in allowed operations per hour on individual runways at major airports.
  • Runway Growth: Increase in the number of new runways at airports where added capacity is needed.
  • ANSP Cost Efficiency: Annual decrease of overall FAA/ANSP unit costs per flight operation.
  • Emissions: Reduction in CO2 emissions.

Airlines, air navigation service providers, equipment manufacturers and other aviation stakeholders must all come together to meet the public's desire and need to travel in an environmentally progressive way while eliminating the cost to industry.

Boeing believes that by focusing on interoperability, shared resources and driving accountability through performance metrics, we can continue to provide a safe, secure and efficient system and by working across the Atlantic those benefits can be accelerated. The time to act is now."

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