Enabling free route operations

On 28 April 2020, the second phase of the New Route Handling concept (NRH2) was successfully deployed in the Zurich Area Control Centre. It will help controllers manage Free Route Airspace operations in a safer, more flexible way and is a major milestone for the Virtual Centre programme. Joël Jordan, VCT2 Programme Director and Olivier Perrin, Head of the ATM Virtual Centre, discuss the next steps to implementing the programme and the long-terms benefits that will be delivered.

SKYGUIDE : What is the aim of NRH and what benefits will it bring?
The main driver is a business one, giving our controllers new tools to manage aircraft flying Free  Route Airspace (FRA) trajectories. In legacy flight data management systems controllers see the route that an aircraft will most probably fly, but it may not be the actual one; with this new system pilots and controllers work on the same flight plan, with the same data. This increases safety, reduces workload – the controller no longer has to spend time interpreting conflicting data – and introduces new levels of autonomy and flexibility. The system is far more integrated into the flight planning process so if there is a change to a route to avoid bad weather, for example, the flight plan is easily amended.



In the frame of the Virtual Centre programme, NRH is also a powerful instrument to harmonise technology and operations between Geneva and Zurich centres – a step towards the “One Swiss Airspace” concept to operate effectively as a single system but based in two locations. This will help us to do that. With the recent decisions to decommission the legacy flight data processing (FDP) system in Geneva we have been able to design and build an FDP system, based on a service-oriented architecture (SOA) and reusing existing components where possible.


JOËL JORDAN It will also be a major help in ensuring business-continuity solutions so if a major disaster takes out one of our en-route centres we would still be able to provide an ATM service from another location. It is a major benefit of the Virtual Centre concept. NRH is an essential part of this programme and will significantly contribute to enhancing data transparency at a national level and our ability to adapt rapidly to volatile air traffic demand patterns. It will also open the door to integrating more controller-pilot data-link communications services and new conflict detection and resolution tools.


The work we are doing in Switzerland on developing the Virtual Centre concept could, we think, be an important intermediate step towards the realisation of a more European-wide solution



What is the timetable for NRH implementation?
JJ We started the implementation of the system in Zurich in April 2020 and we have been making incremental improvements there over the last few months. The next major phase (NRH3) will see the system introduced into Geneva in 2021. Beyond that, all Skyguide ATM units, including approach and departure control centres, will eventually be equipped with it, although there are more constraints to flexibility once you move from upper airspace into more geographically constrained sectors.


OP We have had to incorporate innovative ways of thinking. FRA airspace operations impose on the air navigation service provider a more flexible way of envisaging trajectories. So instead of predicting trajectories around a precise point in space and time we had to invent new concepts for allowing more variations into the flight plan. This resulted in us developing the new “gate” concept – a volume of airspace where you can accept far more variations and flexibility into the flight plan.



What has been the response of controllers to the new technology?
OP The feedback from Zurich is that controllers have a lot more information about planned routes and it has been made available to them in an intuitive, very understandable way. So the level of acceptance has been very high from the very beginning. We have already undertaken some validation exercises with colleagues in Geneva and they are very eager to get this tool. The user feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and this is a crucial step confirming that we are operationally and technically on the right track.


What has been the impact of Covid-19 on the programme?
JJ NRH2 was implemented in April, when the pandemic crisis was at its peak. But we were surprised by how the organisation – and all stakeholders – reacted to the lockdown in exemplary and creative ways. The development and deployment team comprised around 150 people, who had to undertake the work totally remotely. We switched rapidly and extensively to Skype for teamwork and we speedily enabled a large use of remote access to conduct development and testing work. This level of enthusiasm and focus has underlined to us just how much the significance of the programme has been recognised by colleagues.