ANALYSIS: ICAO deal signals chance for ATM breakthrough

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Emissions trading may have stolen the headlines at ICAO's assembly in Montreal, but landmark agreements were also reached over air navigation services and safety management, writes Graham Lake, principal at Aviation Management

The issue of air traffic management costs and efficiency is increasingly on the agenda of airline executives around the world. Airline trade associations including from across the globe have called for progress on improvements in the ATM infrastructure, system capacity and efficiency needed to support the sustainable growth of air transport.

National ATM providers are almost always owned by national governments. The establishment of a pragmatic global framework – within which all governments can direct safe, harmonised, affordable and timely capacity growth of the global ATM system – has too often proved to be an elusive objective for regulators.

However, the potential for progress has taken a big step forward.

ICAO attracted the attention of the world’s press in October when, at its 38th assembly of member states in Montreal, air transport became the only major industry sector to have a global multilateral agreement in place to govern greenhouse gas emissions. ICAO’s assembly, stakeholders decided, was the right place to resolve the international objections prompted by Europe's move to to bring aviation into its emissions trading system. Of course, harmonising environmental policy is important, but significantly, the Assembly reached important agreements for ATM harmonisation.

What may have slipped under the radar while the ETS resolutions were getting the attention were the landmark agreements reached for air navigation services and safety management – new strategic tools to manage the doubling of air traffic. These define the means and targets by which ICAO, states and aviation stakeholders can anticipate and efficiently manage air traffic growth, while proactively maintaining or increasing safety outcomes. These objectives have been developed through extensive consultation with stakeholders, including IATA, airports group ACI and air navigation body CANSO. They constitute for the first time the basis for harmonised action at global, regional and national levels.

The 2013–2028 ICAO Global Air Navigation Plan presents states with a comprehensive planning tool and supports a harmonised global air navigation system. It identifies potential performance improvements available today. It details the next generation of ground and avionics technologies to be deployed worldwide and provides the investment and certainty needed for states to make strategic decisions for their individual planning purposes. The planning approach also addresses user concerns, regulatory requirements and the needs of air navigation service providers and airports. This ensures, says ICAO, one‐stop, comprehensive planning.

This should certainly help to eliminate the potential for the bespoke national and regional solutions occasionally seen in air navigation services, where the lack of harmonised technical or operational concepts has increased costs. The ICAO plan has in part arisen because both the Single European Sky and NextGen in the US had originally taken different approaches to ATM planning. The new ICAO agreement will provide a consistent, safer, efficient and environmentally sound performance-based ATM system worldwide. It will help ATM planners to ensure their ideas are consistent with other nations.

The plan adopted by ICAO sets out four performance improvement areas for air traffic management: airport operations, globally-interoperable systems and data, optimum capacity and flexible flights and efficient flightpaths.

ICAO states in the meantime have recognised that data collection, processing, storage and reporting activities to support regional performance metrics are fundamental to such an approach. The air navigation reporting form will be the basis for performance monitoring relating to implementation at the regional and national levels.

Reporting and monitoring results of states and ATM upgrades, benchmarked against the global plan, will be analysed by ICAO and aviation partner stakeholders such as IATA and ACI. They will then be utilised in developing ICAO’s annual Global Air Navigation Report. The report results will provide an opportunity for the world’s civil aviation community to compare progress across different regions in the establishment of air navigation infrastructure and performance-based procedures.

Meanwhile, capacity and efficiency gains require investment. ICAO policies on charges for airports and air navigation services already exist. These set out options for how these investment costs should be managed and recovered, including the consultation of users of the planned investments and services.

Measuring how national ATM systems are progressing in the delivery of planned improvements in capacity and efficiency should now be more transparent and consistent.