Global air traffic management systems will seize up before 2030 thanks to the predicted growth in air travel unless the International Civil Aviation Organisation's 191 member states can agree to harmonise ATM performance and upgrade their networks.
This warning came from ICAO council president Roberto Kobeh Gonzales as he opened the 12th Air Navigation Conference in Montreal on 19 November. The conference is the gathering at which ATM leaders and government officials from the transport departments across the world assemble to thrash out and ratify the agreements that will enable ICAO's Global Air Navigation Plan (GANP) to advance.
Kobeh told delegates: "Your goal for the next two weeks is to define and achieve consensus on the next steps toward realising our collective vision of an interoperable, seamless and global air traffic management system for international civil aviation in the 21st century."
Unless states can agree on the fundamentals for advance, he says, the global ATM system will be unable to cope with predicted medium-term demand, predicted to grow from 2.7 billion passenger journeys a year now to 6 billion by 2030. The number of flights will double from 30 million to 60 million, with the biggest growth concentrated in the Asia-Pacific region.
Kobeh believes there is consensus that the way ahead for the GANP is to carry out "block upgrades" to ATM performance, and the meeting's first task is to ratify that aim.
Block upgrades - defined stages in the improvement process - happen when states or groups of states agree regional plans for technical and regulatory ATM advance, as with Europe's SESAR Joint Undertaking.
There are four blocks in the upgrade programme, stretching from 2013 to 2028, setting a series of increasing benchmarks to be achieved by airports, air navigation service providers, and airlines. The entry-level standard - block zero - must be achieved by the end of 2013, and this is mainly about optimising currently available systems, assets and adopting the latest operational practices like continuous descent approaches. Block three, the final stage in the plan, will see 4D aircraft trajectories as standard and airborne self-separation.
Head of ICAO's Air Navigation Commission Nancy Graham says: "We have consensus on why we need the block upgrades. What this meeting is about is deciding when, how, and where the money is coming from." Block zero, she says, "is ready to rock and roll".
ICAO says it can offer assistance to states that will struggle to find the investment necessary for improvement, but says the GANP is designed to provide a predictable way forward so that nations can come up with a business plan that demonstrates a return on the investment for the country's economy. It can also help them co-operate with neighbouring states, sharing resources to maximise advantage.
ICAO makes it clear that although there is room for some local flexibility in implementation rates and means because some areas have high growth and high-density traffic, others low traffic and manageable growth, ultimately all the systems must be harmonised. There are special cases like Jamaica, which has a modest amount of traffic to its airports but heavy high-level transit traffic flying through its airspace between North and South America, and it needs to invest in the resources to support those aircraft movements.
The airlines also want predictability and harmonisation. Günther Matschnigg, IATA's head of operations, says that the airlines want a sensible package of onboard communications and navigational equipment to be able to take them anywhere in the world without need for additional investment in rarely-used systems for non-standard ATM providers.
Graham says there are some areas in which there will be less room for negotiation: ATM data-linking methodology and equipment must be globally agreed and completely compatible. She adds that participation in the SWIM (system-wide information management) communications network will be equally important, as it is a critical component in enabling the precise management of 4D aircraft trajectories and uninterrupted traffic flow, which is the ultimate goal of the initiative.