Crowded skies, innovative solutions



Neil Planzer

Published — Thursday 15 November 2012

Last update 15 November 2012 5:52 am

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The Middle East isn't only home to some of the world's leading airlines, such as Saudi Arabian Airlines, it also has one of the busiest skies. As its fast-growing airlines nurture global ambitions and invest in expanding their fleets, the sky above the region has never been a more crowded place.
With the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) predicting that Middle East traffic will grow at an annual rate of 5.2 percent through 2030 and Boeing's Current Market Outlook forecasting demand for an additional 2,370 aircraft in the region by 2031, it will be critically important to address the challenges that will invariable arise.
One significant challenge is the fact that Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems around the world have struggled to keep pace with the extraordinary growth in air traffic. Consequently, we see airlines struggling to deal with air traffic congestion, which has a direct impact on the industry's environmental footprint and on profitability.
Let us look at the numbers: according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) every minute of wasted flying time accounts for 62-litres of fuel consumption and 160-kilograms of Carbon Dioxide emissions. The Association estimates that this has led to 73 million tons of wasted CO2 emissions and nearly $13.5 billion in wasted costs.
However, innovative solutions are being adopted in a concerted effort to address the challenges that stem from outdated and inefficient air traffic management systems.
At a macro level, Collaborative Decision Making (CDM) tools are being advocated as a long-term response to inefficiencies caused by the absence of a cohesive, multi-country approach to ATM. By deploying CDM tools, airports, airlines and other stakeholders will have shared access to data allowing for more informed decision making, leading to improved airspace management.
The industry is also taking a fresh look at the current routing system, which, in most instances, allows airlines to fly fixed routes from origin to destination, with little to no flexibility offered to compensate for changing conditions such as winds. These systems date back to the early days of aviation, when airplanes did not possess the navigational capabilities that they do today and Air Traffic Services (ATS) faced challenges in terms of flight management and communication. Additionally, demarcation of airspace for military and civil use has traditionally been non-negotiable as national security takes obvious precedence over airline operations.
However, while the technologies have evolved and some militaries have become more flexible about sharing air space with civilian aircraft, the route systems have largely remained unchanged, to the disadvantage of the industry.
For example, an airplane flying from Jeddah to New York will, in most instances, have to follow a pre-determined route regardless of wind conditions. If the airplane's pilots are allowed to make course corrections en route in order to benefit from changing high-altitude jet-stream wind conditions, this will have a positive influence on fuel burn, improving operating efficiencies and reducing carbon emissions in the process. Early studies revealed that flexible routing could cut flight times by six minutes, reduce fuel burn by two percent and save 3,000 kilograms of Carbon Dioxide emissions on a 10-hour intercontinental flight.
This system of optimizing flight operations using flexible routing is currently offered by Airservices Australia and the Indian Ocean Strategic Partnership to Reduce Emissions (INSPIRE and the results have been remarkable.
Another efficiency-boosting technique known as Tailored Arrivals has been developed by Boeing and its partners and is being implemented around the world. Tailored Arrivals enables aircraft to fully utilize air-to-ground data link technology to descend into an airport with minimal direct air traffic control intervention. The system essentially helps the pilots calculate the most efficient trajectory from a certain position en route to the runway using continuous descent.
This technique helps reduce the incidence of aircraft being forced into hold patterns and structured descents prior to landing, minimizing fuel consumption and flight time in the process. Trials of the system revealed that the Tailored Arrivals approach reduced fuel consumption during descents by up to 39 percent, depending on airplane type, and total carbon emissions by more than 500,000 pounds.
These are just a few examples of the innovative solutions being employed by an industry that is singularly focused on reducing its environmental footprint while also improving on its operational efficiencies. The effort of the aviation industry underscores the importance of having effective ATM systems in place. While hidden away from the public eye, ATM plays a critical role in helping the airline industry take flight.

— Neil Planzer is vice president of Air Traffic Management at Boeing Flight Services.

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