The lessons of Covid-19

Europe’s ATM system can be reconfigured to cope more flexibly with sudden changes in demand if services can be provided via more horizontal communications and data transfer, rather than vertically and in silos. According to Florian Guillermet, SESAR Joint Undertaking’s executive director, the technology is available to make this shift, but to do so mindsets need to change.

SKYGUIDE : What has the current crisis revealed about ATM?
FLORIAN GUILLERMET The current crisis is bringing further into focus the limitations of the air traffic management (ATM) system, in terms of its ability to handle disruptions of this nature and to scale up or down its operations  according to the traffic demand. Despite the drop in traffic, ATM must continue to serve the civil and military aircraft that are still flying. That means that the same structures and processes have had to remain in place to ensure the traffic is managed safely, both on the ground and in the air. While air navigation service providers (ANSPs) have managed to adapt their operations to meet the social distancing requirements while maintaining their service provision, the crisis is challenging the economic and operational viability of the underlying infrastructure to support more flexible ways of working and cope with varying levels of traffic in the long term.



What is stopping us rethinking ATM and resilience? What might a rethought ATM industry look like?

FG The biggest sticking point is the traditional structure of ATM in Europe. Traditionally, ANSPs have worked vertically, with little interaction with neighbouring ANSPs other than at a tactical, operational level. To be resilient ATM will need to be less geographically specific. That will call for significantly more horizontal interaction between ANSPs and the Network Manager (NM). The pandemic has already shown us that a number of processes can be done remotely with no loss of productivity. Going forward, the focus will need to be on flows and on trajectories, rather than sectors. That will require effective data transfer between stakeholders, and that in turn will require standards to allow seamless connectivity.

What are the most pressing priorities for action? The crisis is being felt equally by all parts of the ecosystem: airports, airlines and ANSPs have all suffered significant losses due to the drop in passengers and in traffic. Starting now, we must work together to restore confidence in flying, assuring passengers that the journey end-to-end is coordinated and safe. That means bringing to market solutions like the SESAR airport operations centre (APOC) to improve data sharing between airlines, airports, and other stakeholders to manage passenger flows and sanitary measures. We need to use this opportunity to implement the solutions (e.g. automation, virtualisation and trajectory based operations) that we have proven will make


ATM more resilient to disruptions, building in flexibility to shift capacity in line with demand, rather than managing demand to fit available capacity. Although published prior to the pandemic, the Airspace Architecture Study and the  follow-up Transition Plan capture many of these solutions and offer a pathway to recovery in the short term, while  also laying the foundations for a more far-reaching transformation of ATM.


What is the role of technology and the various partners (SESAR JU, NM, stakeholders) in bringing about change?
FG The issue is not technology, since the necessary solutions are already available. Rather, we need to address the procedures and the relationships between the stakeholders. That will require recasting incentives between those stakeholders. Some ways of doing that include building horizontal connections; developing standards to facilitate horizontal communications; and redesigning sectors along trajectories and in accordance with traffic flows.



How can we do this reboot sustainably?
FG With the low levels of traffic in recent months, people have grown accustomed to clearer skies and less noise, and are calling on the aviation sector to reassert their commitment to making flying more sustainable. Strong cooperation and investment in innovation will be needed over the next 10 years if we want to meet the ambitions set out by the European Green Deal. We have to redouble our efforts to improve the fuel efficiency of flights through optimised “greener” trajectories. It means as well as focusing on network centricity, we need new ways of flying taking advantage of advances in avionics, and emission-free taxiing techniques.


How can such a change happen at a time when in the short term, the industry is struggling to keep its head above water?
The crisis calls for sensible and focused investment, and hard-nosed prioritisation agreed between stakeholders across the entire aviation value chain. It is only by working together in this way that we will be able to deliver a system that is more scalable, economically sustainable, environmentally efficient, and resilient in the long run.