The ATC Global Exhibition in Amsterdam lives up to its name in terms of the geographical spread of the companies which exhibit. But the associated conference was focused almost entirely on two regional air traffic management modernisation projects: the Single European Sky and the USA's NextGen.
This will come as no surprise to anyone in the industry because these two massive projects - on the verge of a painful delivery after a decade in gestation - will influence how the whole world will organise ATM for at least a generation.
Not that the European SESAR Joint Undertaking and the US Federal Aviation Administration are actually the first into the field with anything amazing in its own right. China is investing in airport and ATM infrastructure at a phenomenal rate, but with the advantage of starting from a low baseline with a clean sheet, they have been able to leapfrog traditional technology and go straight to system-wide satellite-based en-route guidance and required navigation performance approaches. India has followed a similar approach for much of its territory. Australia has had continent-wide ADS-B surveillance for several years, but mounted to cover non-intensive airspace and - in its outback at least - is starting with a clean sheet.
Meanwhile, Europe and the USA have no clean sheet and have to transition seamlessly to better ways of managing intensively used airspace dotted with multiple frantic terminal areas serving highly developed mature economic systems which utterly depend on air transport connections. That is the kind of project you cannot afford to get wrong, and its scale is well beyond anything that has been attempted before in the history of aviation.
That said, is it really going to happen? Most of the world's airspace, including that of Europe and the USA, are still controlled by traditional means.
While the views of a wide range of experts and industry people at the conference varied, the majority say the targets for new-age ATM by 2020 - subject to funding and political will - could definitely be achieved. However, that proviso is critical. Political will is driven by imperatives, and a contraction of air traffic since the 2008 financial crash has unfortunately made the situation seem less urgent. The risk now is that plans that are crucial in the long run will be deprioritised in the short term. If that continues, when the time finally comes for the new system, it will already look dated.
(This article first appeared as the main leading article in 13 March Flight International)