Untangling Air Traffic Delays
We have all felt the frustration of being stuck in a vehicle during rush hour. Few experiences, however, mirror the aggravation of being held on board a delayed aircraft.
As the air traffic management infrastructure is difficult to conceptualize, it is easy to blame air traffic control for the hold-ups. Recently, these delays have been felt most acutely in Europe.
Through much of the last century, propeller-driven aircraft flew low and slow over the continent. Conforming to the local airway and navigational infrastructure of each nation was not a problem. Then World War Two blighted the landscape and ushered in the jet age. Today’s aircraft overfly small countries in a matter of minutes.
From the window seat, Europe looks more homogeneous than diverse. The Economist recently published a piece highlighting how this patchwork of histories, cultures, and political traditions shares some essential responsibilities. The article suggests that in the modern era, geographical borders are an insufficient tool for establishing structure. Europe, it claims, can only succeed as an integrated region.
2018 was the busiest year ever in the skies of Europe. More than 11 million flights pushed back from their gate. One in five arrived late.
Though delays ballooned by 105% last year, calls for a restructuring of Europe’s airspace are far from revolutionary. Back in 2001, efforts were mounted to future-proof the skies from the projected growth. The European Commission drafted the legal framework for a Single European Sky, but political resistance to the idea proved strong.
Nevertheless, the torrential rise in air traffic continues. The air corridor above the North Atlantic is forecast to grow by some 800,000 flights by 2030. By 2037, Europe could see 1.9 billion air travellers each year. That’s 600 million more than today.
Driven by swelling delay metrics, calls for a revamp of air traffic management have been gathering steam. The Civil Air Navigation Services Organization’s (CANSO) Deputy Director-General Simon Hocquard expressed the goal of point-to-point navigation without delays using optimum routes and altitudes.
Earlier this year, a study titled “A proposal for the future architecture of the European airspace” confirmed that without an airspace reconfiguration, air traffic delays could continue climbing.
To that end, the European Commission launched a plan for a Digital European Sky, and in mid-September, several European air navigation service providers signed on to implement a unified vision for the airspace.
The goal is an optimized airspace structure that leverages advances in technology and automation to unshackle air traffic control from geographical boundaries.
No small task. To do so will require considering some issues.
While the role of technology and automation in aviation involves considerable discussion, the delegation of supplementary tasks is almost always a welcome change. The efficiency and capacity of air traffic control can be compromised when a controller turns attention to secondary duties rather than concentrating on what they do best — separating airplanes. Therefore, a core strategy of any modernization efforts should allow the controllers more margin to focus on their primary objective.
For example, large amounts of time and energy are spent talking on the radio. The controller must prioritize transmissions so that aircraft receive the appropriate instructions promptly. Therefore, frequency congestion limits the number of aircraft a controller can safely manage in a given airspace.
Studies have estimated that a technology known as controller-pilot-data link communications (similar to text messaging) could lead to a meaningful decrease in workload. Reducing the time spent on frequency affords more time to plan and monitor their traffic, thereby enabling more efficient control decisions.
Automation and Predictability
While technology has the potential to streamline operations, the environment in which aircraft operate is inherently unpredictable. Airline networks and airport arrival slot times are deeply interwoven and highly sensitive to disruptions, necessitating very fluid air traffic operation.
Though commercial aviation thrives on certainty, the dynamic nature of integrating numerous flights and coordinating their interactions presents a daunting impediment to automation.
Staffing and Training
A period of robust growth in air traffic, coupled with a looming wave of retirements, means pilot and controller shortages could be a challenge for years to come.
Some have suggested that flexible sector boundaries and the free movement of controllers between different airspaces could be a possible solution to the staffing challenge. Controller licensing and training would focus on the level of complexity rather than focusing purely on airspace.
However, it is worth noting that the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers’ Associations (IFATCA) and the Guild of Air Traffic Control Officers (GATCO) have challenged the concept. They maintain that air traffic control should remain a geographical sector-based operation for the foreseeable future.
While the delivery of air traffic services is mostly uniform, air traffic control is a highly specialized discipline. It is complicated to move controllers from a well-staffed unit to a short-staffed one. Doing so requires a significant investment in training.
Finding the balance between what is technically possible and what is humanly possible will form an essential tension in the coming years.
The push to generate more capacity also creates the potential for greenhouse gas emissions caused by aviation to increase. I have made the argument that the incentives for environmental performance align with economic efficiency. However, some studies suggest that current measures to stem emissions outputs will not outpace the anticipated traffic growth. The Guardian recently reported that worldwide CO₂ emissions from commercial flights are rising 70% faster than projected.
Capping the number of flights will not solve the climate crisis. Delaying modernization efforts and failing to address the capacity bottlenecks will only deepen the problem. The demand for air travel shows no signs of slowing down. However, it is not the role of the air traffic management industry to curb growth. Efforts should remain focused on allowing aircraft to operate as efficiently as possible.
The airspace architecture study referenced here was aimed chiefly at improving the efficiency of high-level airspace. As the low-level structure was beyond the scope of the analysis, the efficient management of aircraft around airports remains a pressing concern. Therefore, I hope to address the airport and runway capacity issues in a future article.