Blue sky thinking

Control tower

Brexit may have cast a shadow over the UK’s future participation in the EU-based aviation initiatives, yet NATS is still at the heart of driving the type of airspace modernisation envisaged in the Single European Sky.

by Gary Mason

The wider issue of aviation policy following the Brexit vote has a significant potential impact on the UK’s ability to remain a vibrant and competitive player in the global commercial aviation market.

The UK, as a member of the EU, is party to the European Common Aviation Area (ECAA) and the European Single Aviation Market.

The ECAA includes the 27 EU States as well as Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and several Balkan countries.

The EU created the legal framework for a single market for aviation in 1992. Until then, the industry was dominated by national carriers and state-owned airports. Since that single market came in air fares (excluding local taxes) have dropped by 40 per cent on the back of the rise of low cost carriers who are able to base their aircraft in any EU country without restrictions on routing or draconian charges.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has suggested that possible options for UK-EU aviation co-operation, post Brexit, could include Britain retaining ECAA membership even though it will no longer be a member of the EU.

If this happens membership will be likely to require acceptance of EU aviation law, including EU local air quality rules which are seen as a strong legal impediment to airport expansion and, it could be argued, have held up the government’s decision on whether to give congested Heathrow the green light for that third runway.

In a wider context there has been a nervousness among carriers that Brexit will increase costs for them in the short term. Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Ryanair has said that if the UK leaves the single market, it will be forced out of the Open Skies regime, which will mean that air fares will rise sharply.

But this danger does not just relate to air fares  – NATS the UK’s privatised air navigation service provider (ANSP) has played a central role in the development of the Single European Sky (SES) and has issued a number of strong warnings if the modernization of the UK’s and Europe’s crowded airspace is not achieved more quickly. Where will NATS and the UK aviation landscape sit in the wake of a hard Brexit if a deal on funding and processes for SES and its many technological offshoots cannot be achieved?

SESAR is the technological pillar of the Single European Sky (SES) initiative, which aims to modernise ATM technology in order to improve the capacity, safety and efficiency of European airspace. NATS is a full member of the SESAR Joint Undertaking and chairs the A6 Alliance, which was formed to provide a coordinated voice for the Air Navigation Service Provider members of SESAR.

NATS has pointed out that If each European ANSP were to upgrade to state-of-the-art technology, airspace designs that get the best out of that technology and create a unified air traffic management system, it would shorten journey times, lower fuel burn, and improve punctuality and safety. It was calculated that these efficiencies would reduce CO2 emissions by 18 million tonnes and benefit the European economy to the tune of 320,000 extra jobs and €419 billion additional GDP. Moreover, instead of every country designing, building and maintaining its own individual technology, the development costs of new systems would be shared across many countries and air traffic control providers, making it more efficient for everyone. Manufacturers would also gain by being able to focus R&D on integrated equipment for a single central system; and with standardised technology, all air traffic controllers could be trained in exactly the same way.

Once fully implemented, SES will treble Europe’s current capacity, with improved routing efficiency, timekeeping, minimum disruption, and a reduced cost of air traffic management. Right now, the travelling public pays significantly more for flights across Europe than they need to pay according to NATS.

Until recently Air Traffic Management (ATM) technology has been modernised incrementally – small changes as and when technology advances. However the industry is moving towards a step change in technology with the European joint undertaking, SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research) and the American equivalent, Next Generation (NextGen).

ATM technology has so far been ground-based but satellite navigation is now becoming more widely used. This offers more precise tracking of an aircraft’s location and the potential to integrate information in the cockpit with other ground-based systems.

Of course, unlike other state owned European ANSPs, NATS is a profit making commercial company which is already expanding the market for its services in Europe and other countries. As such, it does not need to wait for the result of the Brexit process to make key strategic decisions about its future or indeed participate in SESAR initiatives. For example NATS is currently in the middle of a “Deploying SESAR” transformation programme.  Within the framework of the Single European Sky (SES) initiative, NATS will modernise its entire air traffic management (ATM) infrastructure over the next few years.

Part of this is a big improvement is resilience to software and technical glitches. NATS operates out of two control centres one at Swanwick in Hampshire and the other at Prestwick in Ayrshire. If a systems failure were to occur in Swanwick, Prestwick would be able to take over and operate Swanwick’s airspace, because the tools and techniques will be identical and work off the same infrastructure. In fact, iTEC is already up and running in Prestwick, having had its first test-drive in January 2016, when it was used to control planes on a trial run in order to evaluate the data. It’s expected to be in full service controlling Scottish airspace by June. Thereafter, it will be rolled out into the NATS technology platform so that Swanwick – currently split between two separate operations rooms that are to be merged into one joint facility by 2019 – can use it. Thereafter, all UK airports will gradually hook up to the new air traffic management system in a staggered progression.

Also as part of the SESAR initiative NATS has selected the R&S VCS-4G IP-based voice communications system from Rohde & Schwarz as its second voice system for its air traffic control (ATC) communications in UK airspace.

The voice over IP (VoIP) COTS solution from the Munich-based electronics firm will create a single platform across NATS’ Swanwick and Prestwick control centers. In addition, the company has agreed to an accelerated delivery schedule to support NATS in their SESAR push.

Tim Bullock, Director Supply Chain Management at NATS, explains: “NATS controls more than 2.4 million flights every year. Our systems must be both flexible and able to handle heavy workloads in order to ensure efficient operations for airlines and passengers alike.”

Rohde & Schwarz will begin the implementation of the second voice system in 2017. It will provide enhanced resilience for voice based radio communications in UK airspace. The air traffic control centers in Swanwick and Prestwick as well as the NATS corporate and technical centre in Whiteley will all be equipped in a phased deployment that will be completed by 2020. The order includes the delivery, implementation and through-life support of more than 450 R&S VCS-4G controller working positions (CWP). Up to 1700 radios and various ground-ground lines will be connected to the system.

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