No aerospace sector is more active than navigation and air traffic management, but development is too regionalised and sporadic

It may be true that there's a lot happening in the aerospace industry, but right now no area is busier with change - and impending change - than the lugubriously named communications, navigation and surveillance/air traffic management sector. In fact the name's complexity derives from the number of disciplines and technologies necessary to enable aircraft to navigate and air traffic control to manage airspace.

This week there are six news stories covering various CNS/ATM developments. And last week we analysed issues debated at March's first-ever Worldwide Symposium on Performance in the Air Navigation System run by the International Civil Aviation Organisation at its Montreal headquarters. It was not a decision-making meeting, as ICAO's president Roberto Kobeh Gonzales pointed out: more an awareness-generating event.

Awareness of what? The parts of the world which, like the USA and Europe, have to manage dense traffic flows safely are well aware of the challenges they face and are, with varying degrees of success, struggling to determine how best to handle a future in which traffic is going to increase to levels that today's operating methods and equipment could not possibly manage successfully. Awareness is needed, particularly in those parts of the world that can just about get away with sitting on their hands at the moment because traffic levels are low, but where in a few years they will have to act. ICAO is rightly worried that when countries or regions are forced into action, they might develop their air traffic management systems as states have done in the past: nationally, with no regard to global standards.

It is self-evident that global standards are essential for safe, efficient air navigation service provision, and the more people travel by air the more critical the globalisation of air traffic management standards becomes for operators, particularly those flying long-range aircraft. It is becoming increasingly important that all air navigation service providers can all communicate effortlessly and use interoperable systems, because - if they cannot - safety suffers, and they also make the global CNS/ATM system inefficient.

So what's happening this week? Brazil's military has begun to cede to civilians its traditional role as the national air navigation services provider, but it took a mid-air collision to force this change in thinking. For all their skills, military controllers should stick to defence, to supporting their own military operations, and to liaising with the civil air navigation services provider. They should not be national or regional air traffic management providers. China and many other nations need to start thinking the same way and stop confusing the national defence role with the safe, efficient management of airspace.

What else this week? The US Federal Aviation Administration has just completed the conversion of air traffic management in all of its oceanic flight information regions to positive - rather than procedural - control. Controllers at its Anchorage, Alaska centre can now "see" all the aircraft in its North Polar airspace thanks to a combination of radar and satellite-based CNS/ATM. This yields greater capacity, improved safety, and reduced fuel consumption for aircraft. Under the procedural system, pilots were often refused an en-route climb to an optimum flight level because separation could not be assured.

With air travel increasingly becoming the world's scapegoat for its global warming sins, air traffic management more than ever needs to be able to provide traffic flow at the optimum speed, height and route to minimise fuel usage. Optimum en-route tracking is not always about straight lines or great circles: it involves getting the best out of tailwinds and finding the weakest headwinds, which demands better real-time weather information for pilots and controllers. Efficiency also involves working closely with airports to ensure efficient arrivals/departures and zero delay, either in the air or during the taxiing phase. Australia is testing an arrivals system that helps do that and so is New Zealand (see P16).

Meanwhile, New Zealand has approved its first required navigation performance approach, which will transform the lives of those in Queenstown, South Island.  Most of the world's approaches and departures will eventually be RNP or something like it. It has the capacity to transform the efficiency of airport terminal areas around the world. It does not have any downsides. CNS/ATM may not sound exciting, but it is.

Source: Flight International