Late last year, major aviation organisations approved the formation of a group to map out a path towards seamless air traffic management across the Asia-Pacific region, writes Andrzej Jeziorski. In early September, the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO’s) Asia-Pacific planning group approved the formation of a new team to map out a path towards Seamless Asian Skies (SAS), maximising the efficiency of civil aviation in the region.
20th Jan 2012
Towards a Seamless Asian Sky
Late last year, major aviation organisations approved the formation of a group to map out a path towards seamless air traffic management across the Asia-Pacific region, writes Andrzej Jeziorski.
In early September, the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO’s) Asia-Pacific planning group approved the formation of a new team to map out a path towards Seamless Asian Skies (SAS), maximising the efficiency of civil aviation in the region.
The new group has begun a two-year planning exercise indentifying what needs to be done to improve Asia-Pacific air traffic management (ATM), issuing a preliminary report this year and a final report in 2013. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the planning group will establish a timeframe for implementation of an SAS concept, and lay out any other necessary guidelines.
With airline profitability suffering from spiralling fuel costs and continued global economic uncertainty, it is more essential than ever to strive to eliminate burdensome airspace regulations and allow traffic to flow as smoothly as technology permits. Implementing SAS could yield substantial savings to airlines, IATA says.
“Savings related to the SAS are the subject of a study group, but a comparison with Europe provides a brief insight into the potential of the project,” the airline association says.
European airspace fragmentation costs the industry not only because of the lack of harmonisation between airspace blocks, but also by preventing modern avionics installed on aircraft to be used to their full potential.
“It means European ATC costs are about US$1,050 a flight, compared with near US$600 in the United States,” IATA says. “Put another way, of the US$17.7 billion paid by airlines to European ATC each year, about US$4 billion is wasted in inefficiency. On average, a flight it 12 percent longer than it needs to be.”
With the Asia-Pacific region seeing more traffic on its main trunk routes that Europe, the concept of an SAS has massive savings potential for carriers operating in the region.
“And it is not only about savings,” IATA says. “Seamless airspace and the technology that enables it will ensure safety is enhanced as air traffic across the region increases markedly.”
With rapid growth predicted for the Asia-Pacific air transport industry over the next 20 years, change is essential. The regional economy is predicted to grow at an average 4.7 percent per annum in the next two decades, boosting the Asia-Pacific share of the global economy to 35 percent by 2030 from 27 percent today.
Boeing’s market outlook for the period estimates a requirement for 11,450 new aircraft in the Asia-Pacific region, as passenger traffic expand by an average 6.7 percent per annum. Cargo growth will also be significant, creating a need for more than 350 new freighters and over 500 passenger-to-freighter conversions for carriers based in the region.
“It all adds up to a market that will be worth US$1.5 trillion, easily surpassing any other region,” IATA says.
These new aircraft could be operating in a very different airspace environment than today’s. Seamless ATM across the region, even retaining today’s traditional airspace divisions, could give airlines a substantial efficiency boost.
The SAS concept “has been on the drawing board for a couple of years but has already achieved widespread, high-level support – incredibly quick progress considering the timescales of the Single European Sky and US NextGen programmes,” IATA says.
Commitment to the project comes from IATA itself, ICAO, the ICAO Asia-Pacific Air Navigation Planning and Implementation Regional Group (APANPIRG) and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Transportation Working Group.
According to Owen Dell, Cathay Pacific’s Manager of International Operations: “In the past, we have tended to focus on trying to reduce the number of Flight Information Regions as a means of improving the delivery of safe and efficient air traffic services. Consolidation of airspace was always going to be difficult, if not impossible in the Asia Pacific region, given the large number of states and the political complexities. Seamless Asian Skies represents a pragmatic solution as there is no need or intent to change airspace boundaries.”
Under the SAS concept each state retains complete control of its airspace, but the different jurisdictions are interoperable.
“The answer to enhancing air-traffic service safety and efficiency lies in ensuring that, from an operational perspective, the airspace boundaries are transparent, or seamless,” Dell says. “If service delivery on both sides of a boundary is provided according to an agreed regional operational concept, then the problem is solved. Once this transparency of airspace boundaries exists, any future service delivery enhancements can be implemented as ‘block upgrades’ or, in other words, co-ordinated and harmonized implementations.”
The discussions have been welcomed by the region’s biggest markets. “China, India, and Japan will each provide valuable input and this should enable smaller countries to find their place as part of the jigsaw,” IATA says.
“I think the region will work differently from Europe and the United States,” says Ken McLean, IATA’s regional director of Asia-Pacific safety, operations and infrastructure. “It is a diverse set of cultures but all value the relationship, and this will determine the project’s success as much as technical know-how and business sense.”
Alongside economic and technical factors, the SAS also brings significant potential environmental benefits. More efficient use of airspace reduces harmful emissions, while airlines will also save substantial amounts of money by burning less fuel. Passengers will also have valuable time trimmed from their journeys.
Asian carriers operate some of the world’s youngest fleets – technically the aircraft are all but capable of autonomous flight, IATA points out.
“Taking a user-preferred trajectory is simple from an airline point of view,” the airline group says. “But the infrastructure needs to be brought up to speed to match the airline investment in hardware and provide service for the modern environment. Mandates on aircraft equipment already exist in other regions so, for international carriers, it makes sense to utilise that equipment as much as possible.”
The USA and Europe are moving ahead with their NextGen and Single European Sky (SES) programmes, and – as the largest aviation market – the Asia-Pacific needs to keep up. Equally crucial will be ensuring that all three major regions have interoperable airspace, so keeping pace with the USA and Europe will allow the Asia Pacific region to co-ordinate effectively with these parallel programmes.
“It makes sense to tie in as much as possible with NextGen and SES implementation,” IATA says.
September’s green light from APANPIRG for the formation of the Seamless Asian Skies Planning Group brought this concept a step closer to reality.
“There will be challenges for individual countries to bring them up to speed, but it’s nothing that cannot be solved with technology readily available today,” McLean says. “It will be the geopolitical situation that will ultimately determine when the SAS becomes reality.”