Air travel is no longer simply for a jet-setting elite—it is for all. Dramatic growth means a system which emerged in the aftermath of WW2 is struggling to cope with 21st century traffic volume
The statistics are telling. In the first 100 years of commercial aviation—from 1914 to 2014—sixty-five billion people travelled by air. And according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) it will only take 20 years for aviation to repeat that milestone. On 1 January 1914, in the first scheduled commercial service, the St Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Company connected the city of St Petersburg, Florida with its neighbour Tampa with a flight over Tampa Bay. In 2014, commercial aviation connects over 40,000 cities globally, carrying an estimated 3.3 billion passengers, which equates to 44 per cent of the world’s population.
This relentless traffic growth threatens to outstrip airspace capacity, and in particular, our capacity to deal with it safely. Future Journeys 2013–2032, the Airbus global market forecast, focuses on the predicted growth in the Asia-Pacific region, which the manufacturer says will account for 36 per cent of all new passenger aircraft deliveries, compared to 20 per cent for Europe and 19 per cent for North America. Much of this demand will be driven by the growth of the middle class in the region, which according to the forecast represented 32 per cent of the world’s middle class in 2012, but is estimated to reach 62 per cent in 2032. Not only will this group be financially able to travel, but will want to travel.
This growth poses airspace safety and efficiency challenges for Australia and the Asia-Pacific region generally. Historically, one way to cope with increased movement has been to make airspace sectors smaller, but given the Asia-Pacific area is already divided into 44 flight information regions (FIRs), further dissection is not practicable or desirable. China, for example, is managing its growth by increasing the size of its systems, and dissecting airspace, which can result in controllers spending more time in handing over aircraft than in managing them. Conversely, Australia is planning to reduce its FIRs from two to one with the introduction of the OneSKY ATM system it is purchasing jointly with Defence.
China also faces a unique issue in managing air traffic growth safely—military control of its airspace. China’s military has exclusive control over 80 per cent of its airspace, compared to the 15 per cent allocated for military use in the US, according to The Washington Times. On 24 July, the newspaper reported that because of air force drills from 20 July–15 August 2014, ‘twelve of China’s busiest airports, including Shanghai, were experiencing massive flight delays’.
Asia-Pacific’s 44 FIRs encompass significant cultural and political differences and a variety of airspace service providers. Adam Burford, vice president air traffic management, Thales Australia, told a Royal Aeronautical Society seminar earlier this year. Seamlessly coordinating air traffic control from one region to the next becomes more difficult when the maturity of systems and technology varies widely. Less sophisticated airspace management technology and procedures mean that controllers have to allow greater aircraft separation because they cannot be fully confident of the accuracy of the aircraft position. More simplistic technology can also require more manual handovers increasing the risk of misinterpretation.
There are pockets in the region where the airspace is reaching traffic capacity with current technology Burford explained. The Pearl River delta region is one such region. It comprises five airports: Hong Kong Chek Lap Kok International, Macau International, Zhuhai, Shenzhen Boan International and Guangzhou’s New Baiyan International; controlled by three air traffic control centres, in Guangzhou, Zhuhai and Hong Kong. These five major airports are all within 75 nautical miles of each other and serve a population of 42 million people. Congestion above the five airports is created as a result of aircraft having to switch constantly between the three ATC centres, the severe airspace restrictions imposed by the military and the sheer volume of traffic.
The Australian scene
In Australia, which is home to one of the top ten busiest city pairs in the world: Melbourne–Sydney, there are areas where traffic growth means challenges for safe ATM. The Sydney region has grown enormously since Kingsford-Smith airport was built. From 1985 to 2012, total passenger movements through Sydney tripled: from 9.5 million to 36 million.
CASA’s civil aviation safety responsibilities include oversight of Australian-administered airspace—representing 11 per cent of the total global airspace. CASA must ‘ensure this airspace is used safely, taking into account factors such as: protection of the environment; efficient use of airspace; equitable access for all airspace users; and national security’. As part of that oversight, CASA regularly reviews Australian airspace taking a risk-based approach. The risk assessment draws on a variety of data: quarterly data from 300 aerodromes; the Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s aviation safety incident reports (ASIRs) relevant to airspace; stakeholder comment; traffic and passenger movements; factors such as the volume of IFR and VFR traffic; and uses models such as TAAM (Total Airspace/Airport Modeller) and from late 2014, FPDAM (flight procedure design airspace management), to give a ranking of aerodromes’ safety risk.
The reviews are part of a continuous process. The review of upper airspace services (east) and outback groups was released in July 2014, and the latest, the Sydney Basin Airspace Review, is due out for public discussion by the end of 2014. The July review highlighted a 10 per cent growth in the outback group, driven largely by fly-in, fly-out operations of a buoyant mining and resources sector. Counter-intuitively, the transition from mine construction to production may see an increase in aircraft movements because, although the number of production staff is generally smaller, they work a much shorter cycle at the mine. However, while it was noted that ‘the increase in traffic levels has placed some stress on the air traffic services system … the advent of automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B)’ meant that ‘the efficiency of the airspace is being maintained’.
The joint study into aviation capacity released in 2012 showed that by 2027, Sydney Airport would not have capacity for any extra flights. The Sydney Basin Review examines many of these issues in relation to using that airspace safely.
However, the executive manager of Airspace and Aerodrome Regulation, Peter Cromarty, explains, although the review ‘will highlight where the issues are, there is an expectation from some that it will solve the Sydney Basin problems. It won’t. But it will bring together all the issues in one place for the first time.’ The Review does not cover issues associated with Badgerys Creek, for example. The review looks forward five years, whereas the first stage of Badgerys Creek will not be complete and operational until 2025. Nor does the review address the Sydney Long Term Operating Plan (LTOP), implemented in 1997 to share the noise generated by Sydney Airport, by establishing noise-sharing targets for areas north, east, south and west of the airport; or the current traffic movement cap of 80 aircraft movements per hour. The review has identified a number of safety issues, and a working group comprising CASA and Airservices specialists is being set up to examine the issues identified in the review. One aspect worthy of further examination, for example, is the size of control zones.
Airservices set up an internal taskforce, Operation Skysafe, in late 2013 to review the safety and efficiency of existing air routes and management of airspace. The taskforce reports directly to Airservices’ chief executive, Margaret Staib.
On 9 September 2014, Airservices announced the establishment of a revised air route structure between Melbourne and Cairns. Rather than aircraft being assigned different altitudes on the same two-way route, under the new air route structure, aircraft fly on parallel paths. ‘The taskforce undertook a body of work which has resulted in the duplication of the main, busy flight path between Melbourne and Cairns’, Staib said. ‘With more than 400 aircraft flying this route each month, the removal of the existing two-way route structure which has been in place for many years improves safety for air travellers as well as creates additional capacity to deal with future growth.’
Margaret Staib also outlined the fundamental changes OneSKY, the new harmonised air traffic management system integrating civil and defence ATC, will bring to Australian airspace at Airservices’ annual Waypoint held in September 2014.
OneSKY is expected to be fully operational by 2021. In her address, Staib said that OneSKY would bring improved operational efficiency and safety by providing:
- a single flight information region
- a national solution to ATM infrastructure and systems
- seamless ATM services from Airservices and Defence
- integrated GNSS (global navigation satellite systems)
- ADS-B surveillance, maximising aircraft avionics
- more flexible use of airspace through user-preferred routes
- alignment with ICAO standards and procedures.