Science & Technology


Lessons Learned: The Rise and Fall of the SESAR ATM improvement program

During most of their life cycle, R&D programs for improving the efficiency of the Air Traffic Management (ATM) system can operate quietly in the background, far away from public attention. Only if there are hick-ups in ATM performance, e.g.,
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  Lessons Learned: The Rise and Fall of the SESAR ATM improvement program   Sip Swierstra, Carlos Garcia, Ibrahim Bayraktutar    Second draft for peer review  –   Introduction & Part One Introduction During most of their life cycle, R&D programs for improving the efficiency of the Air Traffic Management (ATM) system can operate quietly in the background, far away from public attention. Only if there are hick-ups in ATM performance, e.g., excessive delays experienced by the passengers or aircraft operators, then these programs suddenly come under the scrutiny. This has been the case for a while now. The European Carriers were calling again for action to battle rising ATC delays in 2016. In the busy summer period, they experienced a 35% increase with respect to 2015. Over 2016, the Annual Report of the Upper Airspace Center in Maastricht reported an increase in traffic of 4.6% with respect to that of 2015, but also an increase in delays of 68%. How did we get here? In the 1950's, the approaching era of jet travel and a series of midair collisions prompted the creation of the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) in the U.S.A. and EUROCONTROL in Europe. Until the second half of the eighties, the community seemed satisfied with these initiatives. Then, in Europe, delays severely exceeded acceptable levels. The response of the National Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSP's) was to create the Central Flow Management Unit (CFMU) to regulate the air traffic flow over Europe. The management of the CFMU was delegated to EUROCONTROL. At the same time, the need was recognized to improve the Concept of Operation of Air Traffic Control (ATC) in general. This led to the Program for the Harmonized ATM Research in EUROCONTROL, PHARE, and the European ATC Harmonization and Implementation Program (EATCHIP), also managed by EUROCONTROL. The AMT2000+ Concept of Operation brought new elan into the EUROCONTROL Organization: The EATCHIP program became EATMP. However, in reality, this was more a change of name and re-positioning of some high level management people than anything else.   In spite of this, through EATCHIP and EATMP, EUROCONTROL managed some important technical improvements very successfully. The introduction of the 8.33-kHz channel spacing for VHF communication radios facilitated the expansion of the number of ATC sectors in Europe. This lead to a possible reduction of the number of controlled aircraft in each sector. Through the Reduced Vertical Separation Minima (RVSM) project, the minimum vertical separation between aircraft at high flight levels was reduced from 2000 to 1000 ft. This increased the number of usable levels in the upper airspace, thus avoiding many potential conflict situations. Thanks to both projects a significant increase in ATC capacity was realized.   On the other hand, unfortunately, EUROCONTROL did not manage to make significant improvements in the Concept of Operation of ATC. In fact, the current concept of operation of ATC is very similar to that of the early days: controllers predict the future trajectories of aircraft, check for potential conflict situations and resolve them. Only the technical tools for  fusing sensor and flight plan data and the efficiency of the Controller Working Position have been improved significantly. To some extent, this and the increase in the number of ATC sectors have kept the balance between the increase in traffic demand and ATC capacity. Around 2000, lack of progress by EUROCONTROL led to the impatience of several stakeholders. Eventually, they convinced the European Commission to initiate the Single European Sky (SES) program. At that time, this did not worry EUROCONTROL ma nagement too much, as they considered themselves to be ‘the’ competent organization for coordinating the R&D effort for ATM in Europe. This changed dramatically when in 2005 a consortium of European industries, led by Airbus, made an unsolicited proposal to the SES team: They claimed to know how to "really" improve ATM efficiency. Their public relations department promised, among other things, a threefold increase in ATM capacity, a tenfold increase in safety and a 50 % reduction in cost. Given that Airbus is a reputable company, this was an offer the European Commission could not refuse. The Single European Sky ATM Research program, SESAR, was born. In 2007, the SESAR Joint Undertaking (SESAR JU) was established as a public-private partnership to harness the research and innovation expertise and resources of the entire ATM community. The European Commission, EUROCONTROL and 15 industry partners and ANSPs were its founding partners. Its overall budget would amount to 2.1 billion euros. Where EUROCONTROL was only funded by funds collected from airspace users, the SESAR JU would now receive a 30% share from taxpayer’s contributions. These investments should be seen in the light of the overall yearly cost of ATM services. According to EUROCONTROL data, in 2017, the gross total amounted to 7.9 billion euros. This meant that, when averaging over the 10.6 million flights processed, each passenger contributed 9 euros per flight. The SESAR Joint Undertaking took the lead from EUROCONTROL for coordinating the European R&D activities. Consequently, this quickly resulted in the end of the R&D activities within EUROCONTROL. Being stripped of a great part of its financial resources, the organization had to make a significant reduction in technical staff. Today, their main activities are reduced to the European Network Management (the former CFMU), the Upper Airspace Control Center in Maastricht, The Netherlands, and the collection of route charges from the aircraft operators. Unfortunately, many of the partners in the S-JU consortium lacked the specific background in ATM system research. During their first years of operation, the SESAR Joint Undertaking was very lucky as, due to the world-wide financial crisis, the traffic demand did not increase significantly. They could potter along undisturbed. However, as soon as the tide changed, the problems started popping up. One just had to wait for an increase in traffic demand for the European Carriers to call again for action to battle rising ATC delays. It was a good thing that the restructuring of the European airspace through the Functional Airspace Block Europe Central (FABEC) project had helped to alleviate some critical bottlenecks, else the increase in delays might have climbed even higher. Note that FABEC was mainly a contribution from EUROCONTROL's Network Management activities. Today, more and more people start to realize that there are no major ongoing projects managed by the SESAR JU, which might have resulted into significant improvements in ATM efficiency. It is expected that the gap between traffic demand and ATM capacity will increase further.    So what now? In these days, the quest for information is mainly processed by search engines. Their priority is to present information compatible with the hype of the day. This leads to a serious level of amnesia hiding the knowledge that forms the foundation of where we are today, thus frustrating effective progress. This will also complicate the setup of a new organization that will bring the necessary improvements. From a practical point of view, the community will be required to work within the current organizational structure, i.e. the SES projects in the European Commission, the SESAR Joint Undertaking consisting of industries and EUROCONTROL. Together, they will need to develop a new mission that will bring the necessary improvements. In a first step, to avoid the mistakes from the past, the definition of this new mission will require the identification of ‘what went wrong’ in the journey of   ATC developments from 1960 until now. Organization of the paper In this paper, we will focus on the lessons learned from some key R&D development projects during these years, in particular, the possible contribution from ATC. We'll identify what works, what does not work and why. The focus will be on the technical issues and the way the managements handle these. ‘Lessons Learned’ are largely based on the work in the European scene, but where applicable, we'll connect to parallel work in the U.S.A. Where relevant, we’ll refer to the srcinal work and make these papers available on a dedicated website.   In Part One, we present a helicopter view of some of the challenges for the ATC system with the focus on the caveats associated with the operational concepts of SESAR and NextGen. We remind the community of a more efficient way forward, which was duly validated and ready for implementation.   In Part Two, we describe the Lessons Learned during the technical and operational development of that concept, its performance and the political manipulations that blocked its operational implementation in 2001. Our experiences may be useful for the development of efficient concepts for trajectory based operations in the future and the creation of suitable management structures that support this. Part one: Setting the scene Passengers are the major clients of the aviation industry main stakeholders. For travel, they require reliability, punctuality and safety. Unfortunately, in this aspect, aviation is an industry with a mediocre performance track record: some 20% of the services delivered do not meet the key quality criterion: arrive on-time. The community challenges the air transport industry to ameliorate their quality of service by improving punctuality, providing sufficient flights on popular routes and reducing the impact of aviation on the environment while maintaining safety. Airlines react by pointing their fingers to the lack of performance from the ATM system. The authorities, who manage the ATM system, accept the blame willingly and initiate one expensive project after another to try to improve ATM system performance. In the U.S.A., we saw CTAS, AAS, Free Flight, etc. and in Europe, EATCHIP and EATMP.  Today the SESAR and NextGen are the latest, ambitious "end all, be all" projects receiving billions of euros/dollars from passengers and taxpayers. They intend to improve client satisfaction by creating additional capacity and by increasing the overall efficiency of the ATM system. To fulfill these objectives, the European Commission and the FAA have set similar High-Level Goals for their development and implementation projects: ●   Enable a 3-fold increase in capacity, which should also reduce delays both on the ground and in the air.   ●   Improve safety by a factor of 10.   ●   Enable a 10% reduction in the effects flights have on the environment.   ●   Provide ATM services to the airspace users at a cost of at least 50% less.   Doubtless, increasing ATM capacity will enable more flights. This is in line with requirements from airlines and aircraft manufacturers, but will this also bring the required improvements in punctuality or, in other words, are the taxpayers/passengers funds spent effectively to meet their requirements as well?   The ATM system The aviation industry comprises of many actors such as airlines, aircraft and equipment manufacturers, regulating authorities, ANSPs managing the ATM system, etc. The ATM system encompasses all systems that assist aircraft to depart from an aerodrome, transit through airspace, and land at the destination aerodrome, including Air Traffic Flow and Capacity Management (ATFCM), ATC, aeronautical meteorology, air navigation systems (aids to navigation), Air Space Management (ASM), Air Traffic Services (ATS) and last but not the least, airborne automation. The primary mission of the ATM system is to deliver a safe, orderly and expeditious flow of air traffic in the airspace for which it is responsible. Secondly, it should provide sufficient capacity to meet the demand. In 1971, Ratcliffe described the ATM system as a hierarchy of control loops, each serving to convert a traffic demand into a potential traffic flow (Fig. 1-1). Each loop is concerned with problems that can be foreseen to arise at some time in the future. The distinctive characteristic of any loop is the distance ahead, in time, to which it prognosticates  [Ref. 1-1: 1971 The Quantitative Description of a Traffic Control Process - Ratcliffe] . In each loop, there is a mechanism for the prediction of future traffic. This prediction is compared with certain internal criteria and if these are not satisfied, some control action is taken to coerce the traffic pattern into more acceptable form. It is characteristic of most of these loops that they cannot be proved to be capable of safely handling all conceivable traffic demand; there is an implicit assumption that the superior elements of the control system will not tolerate a traffic demand which is beyond the handling capability of the inferior loops, but that a residue of unsolved problems can generally be left to be handled further down the chain.    Fig. 1-1 Control loops in the ATM system  
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