Next generation air traffic management concepts will only realise their full potential to reduce airspace congestion in the 2020s with help from an all-new generation of airliners designed to be intelligent "swimmers" within the electronic ATM environment.

But, says Airbus executive vice-president for strategy and future programmes Christian Scherer, such a vision of more-direct flight routeing and reduced delays will first have to begin with extensive electronic modifications to the existing aircraft fleet.

"Intelligent" aircraft, says Scherer, will be a critical element in 21st century ATM systems being developed in Europe (SESAR) and the USA (NextGen). Scherer sees SESAR as reaching its full potential around 2025, when a new generation of aircraft are expected to be replacing the current fleet of machines like Airbus's A320 or Boeing's 737.

Speaking as Airbus launched a subsidiary business, ProSky, dedicated to developing ATM systems, Scherer noted that the various SESAR players have a range of diverging interests. Airlines, for example, would benefit greatly from reduced delays and shorter routes, but are also desperate to minimise capital expenditure. Suppliers of equipment ranging from on-ground ATM systems to on-board avionics want to sell as much product as possible.

Airbus, Scherer admits, would sell more aircraft if a new ATM system could squeeze more flights into the available airspace. But, he insists, the airframer has no "particular conflict" over the creation of SESAR and thus sees itself as "the natural federator of all the stakeholders' interests" in this bid, as in integrator, to remove the threat of an ATM "bottleneck" to the growth of air travel.

Thus, he stresses, ProSky is a centre of expertise - to be found inside the EADS group as well as outside - rather than a profit centre, and ProSky is not meant to be a competitor to businesses developing or supplying any part of the SESAR system.

The unit could one day become a profit-making business for Airbus, but for now its focus is to work with its main customer, SESAR, to move that project forward. Other customers include the Chinese air traffic management bureau, which in December signed a memorandum of understanding with what was then an Airbus operating department to help develop and implement new ATM systems and best practices in China.

If ProSky proves to be the grease that gets SESAR's wheels turning - development has proceeded at a crawling pace, with a decade of talk and study leaving Europe little closer to achieving its goal of moving from 36 national air space zones to about nine integrated regions - Airbus will earn much thanks from other system players even if its only payoff is more efficient air transport in Europe.

According to the SESAR Joint Undertaking office, the total estimated cost of the development phase is €2.1 billion ($2.7 billion), with the European Union, Eurocontrol and the industry each stumping up €700 million.

However, despite Airbus's credentials, the history of airframer attempts to promote ATM modernisation does not point clearly to success. A diversification drive saw Boeing in 2000 create an Air Traffic Management business unit, which was contracted to develop ideas for SESAR.

Working in collaboration was an industry grouping of EADS, Airbus and Thales, known as the Air Traffic Alliance. In 2005, Boeing scaled down its ATM business and folded it into its Phantom Works research organisation, while Air Traffic Alliance was subsequently disbanded.

Source: Flight International