With the number of air travelers around the world expected to double to more than 7 billion by 2035, according to IATA, the air transport industry is ramping up awareness on the critical need for airspace modernization.

Modernization efforts are already underway in some of the major aviation markets, such as FAA’s NextGen program in the US and Europe’s Single European Sky (SES) project, but there is growing recognition that these endeavors are slow to implement.  NextGen is struggling to garner the full scope of fiscal support it needs at government level, while SES is wallowing in a pool of political apathy that simply refuses to yield, no matter what attempts at leverage the European Commission endeavors to throw at it. SES targets include a 10% reduction in aviation’s environmental impact, a threefold increase in airspace capacity, and cost cuts in the order of 50%. It also aims to improve safety by a factor of 10, but “is much delayed and suffering from a lack of political leadership at national level,” according to IATA.

In addition, much of the technology that makes up the framework infrastructure for these large scale modernization projects is already at least 10 years old and failing to keep pace with incremental developments both in the aircraft and on the ground.

A study released by IATA in April suggests that airspace modernization in Europe alone could help generate one million additional jobs and boost the region’s economy by €245 billion ($280 billion) by 2035. 

The study, conducted by SEO Amsterdam Economics Research, suggests that, although air connectivity in Europe already supports 11.7 million European jobs and $860 billion (4.1%) of European GDP, it remains largely inefficient.  The study points out that average flights are nearly 50 kilometers longer than they need to be in terms of distance traveled and delays average around 10 minutes per flight, adversely affecting prosperity, productivity and sustainability.

IATA commissioned the study in a bid to “create a new momentum for delivering the SES goals” by involving stakeholder groups beyond aviation that would “particularly stand to benefit from the economic boost generated by a modernized ATM.” This wider stakeholder base includes the hospitality and tourism sectors, the knowledge economy, trades unions, cultural and educational representatives, and manufacturing and service exporters.

The study points out that: “The much-needed modernization of European airspace is progressing slowly and is lagging behind the targets set. Furthermore, airport capacity is expected to fall short of future demand growth.” It argues that there is “strong evidence on the economic benefits that airspace modernization and removal of airport capacity constraints could generate for consumers, businesses, trade, tourism and investment.”

These benefits include more efficient and higher capacity air navigation services resulting in cost savings for airlines and lower fares; fewer delays through the use of shorter and more direct routings; an average flight time reduction of 4-8 minutes per one-way flight, with average delays down from 12 to 8 minutes per flight, in comparison to a “do nothing” scenario; connectivity growth (more routes, more frequencies); and lower CO2 emissions per flight.

Estimated consumer benefits are on average €43 per passenger in 2035, with benefits higher for business (€69) than leisure (€36) passengers. This equates to a per passenger benefit of 14% and 11% of the 2014 average return ticket price for business and leisure passengers, respectively.

Deadlock costs

IATA’s launch of a Europe-wide campaign to re-invigorate the process of European ATM reform and modernization aims to bring together consumer groups and business associations to help break the political deadlock at a national level to expedite progress on SES implementation.

IATA DG and CEO Tony Tyler pointed out that the €245 billion in potential benefits to be gained from airspace modernization was both “a big number” and “a worthy goal,” and it was therefore “our collective duty to make sure that number is top of mind with politicians, consumers, chambers of commerce and individual businesses. If this continent reaches 2035 missing that €245 billion, it will be a quality of life issue for every European.”

However, this is not just a problem at a European level and the UK-based lobby group Sustainable Aviation wrote to British Prime Minister David Cameron in April urging the government “to consider major airspace change as a national infrastructure project with the same priority as the rollout of superfast broadband.”

Sustainable Aviation—which includes among its members a number of UK airlines, airports, air navigation service providers (ANSPs), and various international equipment and technology manufacturers—pointed out that the UK’s airspace structures “have changed little since the 1960s” and are now “in urgent need of modernization.” It warned that, without modernization, flight delays in UK airspace were “likely to soar to 50 times what they are today, creating unnecessary additional noise and CO2 emissions as well as costing airlines over £1 billion per year.”

Sustainable Aviation chair Ian Jopson, head of environment and community affairs at UK ANSP NATS, said: “If you imagine the motorway network of the 1960s trying to cope with today’s road traffic levels, you will realize the level of delay that motorists would experience. That is increasingly what we face with our airspace system.”

He stressed that the UK aviation industry was “committed to finding new, innovative and fair ways to modernize our airspace,” by making greater use of techniques such as continuous climbs and descents, reduced holding, and implementing multiple alternative routes.

NATS CEO Martin Rolfe has similarly warned of increased delays, especially during the peak summer months, if nothing is done to modernize UK airspace.

“Airspace is our invisible infrastructure: we might not be able to see it, but it is as important as our roads, our railways and our runways,” he said. “Today’s airspace was designed more than 50 years ago and for a different age, when aircraft like the VC-10, the Vanguard and the Hawker Siddeley Trident ruled the skies, not the A380s and Boeing 777s of today.”

He said that, with a doubling of traffic on average every 15 years, almost no matter where in the world, the need for modernization “has really started to hit us.” Most of the modernization to date has been to the airport and ground infrastructure, but not the airspace infrastructure itself. 

“That is the area that is now struggling to cope,” Rolfe said.  He pointed out that, 50 years ago, “when half a million aircraft in our skies no doubt seemed busy, no one dreamed that the airspace would need to support 2.4 million aircraft flying through it, carrying 250 million passengers. That’s what we saw last year [in UK airspace]. By 2030, we expect to see 3 million flights per year, [with] the added complexity of sharing the airspace with new and existing users, such as the military, general and business aviation and now remotely piloted aircraft systems or drones. We cannot meet that demand with today’s infrastructure.”

He insisted that “making no changes to our airspace is not an option,” and that without any  improvement, “our analysis based on government traffic forecasts suggest delays are likely to soar to 50 times what they are today by 2030, resulting in some 65,000 additional cancellations a year, costing airlines over £1 billion, and the wider economy much more.”

Rolfe further stressed that this “isn’t a problem that’s years away from manifesting itself—we’re feeling it today. This year looks set to be the busiest on record in the south east of England. We’re expecting to handle around 1.14 million flights in and out of the five major London airports in 2016 to an ever increasing list of destinations. That’s a rise of 40,000 flights on last year and while we’ll always do our best to keep delays as low as possible, we’re likely to begin seeing symptoms of the capacity crunch this summer.”

WhenGen NextGen?

Elsewhere around the globe, FAA’s NextGen program “is a decade behind schedule and will cost two or three times more than the initial estimated $40 billion in public-private investment, according to a recent government study,” Tyler told this year’s IATA Ops Conference in Copenhagen. “The reality is that, as it is currently structured, FAA has been unable to keep NextGen on schedule, although much of the problem lies outside the agency’s control. It is subject to the vagaries and shifting priorities of the annual federal budget process.”

He told the conference that, “given the importance of the US market, a modernized and efficient US ATC system is critical to the future growth of global commercial aviation. It is for that reason that IATA and other stakeholders supported modernizing the system through the creation of an independent, corporatized non-profit entity to perform air traffic services. Unfortunately, despite efforts by some far-sighted lawmakers, it appears most likely that this effort will not succeed this year. There are grounds for future optimism, however, based on the broad coalition of stakeholders who came together to support the initiative.”

Speaking at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Aviation Symposium in May, National Air Traffic Controller Association (NATCA) president Paul Rinaldi said that one of the key problems with NextGen was that the technology involved was already 10-11 years old. “It may be that we are moving up to an iPhone 1 level, but some of our competitors are on iPhone 6 or 7. Our system is very big, but that’s not an excuse for why we can’t streamline our processes and give our stakeholders what they need to be more efficient,” Rinaldi said.

He argued that neighboring airspace management organizations, such as NAV Canada, had the stable revenue streams that enabled them to modernize, adapt and be more dynamic.

An independent, commercialized, but not-for-profit ANSP, NAV Canada, Rinaldi said, was “running full steam ahead” to adopt a space-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) air traffic surveillance system, while the US was stuck with an “archaic system.”

“Now is the time to be adaptive,” Rinaldi said. “We should build our own system. It should be an American system. It should not be a Republican or a Democrat or a union thing. It’s a United States thing and it should be about what’s best for this country.”

Asia too

The Asia Pacific region, meanwhile, is facing unprecedented levels of growth in air traffic, but while a number of states are unilaterally modernizing their airspace, “the challenge is how to mobilize collectively to achieve the necessary coordination within the region and globally,” Andrew Herdman, Director General of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA) told ATW.

He highlighted the need for multi-lateral collaboration among groups of states, with the aim of achieving improved coordination and streamlined flow control on the major air routes covering the region.  “In the US or Europe, this typically takes the form of centrally coordinated flow control mechanisms,” Herdman said. “The challenge in the Asia Pacific region is how to achieve similar efficiency improvements for flow control with distributed decision making.” 

He pointed out that the “enormous growth of aviation inevitably creates challenges” for the region’s ANSPs, citing China in particular as having experienced “significant challenges with evidence of congestion on key air routes and lack of availability of additional slots at major airports, leading to deteriorations in on-time performance and the effects of disruption following adverse weather events or other external factors.” Herdman stressed that the authorities were taking steps to address these challenges, but that “much more remains to be done, given the continued growth in travel demand.”

He pointed out that other bottlenecks around the region were being addressed, but that the airlines believe “even greater efforts are needed.”

“Apart from the deterioration in on-time performance which affects customer service levels, congestion and delays also lead to higher costs and adverse environmental impact due to the additional fuel consumption and emissions involved,” Herdman concluded.