The skies above Europe are an air traffic patchwork, with each European State managing its own block of airspace in its own way. Yet this approach isn’t aligned with the international nature of aviation and can lead to inefficiencies, from different Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) duplicating investment costs through to airlines flying further than they need to. Indeed, the European Commission estimate that fragmented air traffic control across 27 countries costs €4 billion euros a year in delays, wasteful fuel burn and other inefficiencies .
To address this, the Commission launched its Single European Sky (SES) initiative back in the early 2000’s. Its aim is to reorganise European airspace, completing the jigsaw and erasing the seams between the borders in our skies in order to create additional capacity, increase the overall efficiency of ATM and continue to improve the safety of the industry.
A major part of SES is a huge cross-industry research and development programme called SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research programme). SESAR is developing technologies and procedures for a new generation ATM network system designed to enhance performance by doubling the current capacity while improving safety by a factor of four, reducing departure delays by 30%, reducing airline costs by 40% and cutting air transport’s impact on the environment by 10% per flight.
In 2016, we reach a major milestone as we come to the end of the first phase of SESAR R&D. Much has been achieved, but there is still much to be done…
“SESAR is fundamentally about collaboration and pooling resources in service of a common vision: a vision of a more efficient, environmentally friendly European airspace that can cope with demand that’s expected by IATA to see up to an additional 591 million passengers a year by 2034,”  explains Dave Curtis, Head of Future ATM and Policy at NATS.
NATS has been involved from the start. As a full member of the SESAR Joint Undertaking – the organisation that coordinates activities across the programme – NATS participates in a number of projects and also leads one of the work streams, focused particularly on activities in the Terminal Manoeuvring Area (TMA) – the airspace surrounding our airports.
It’s also a member of the A6 Alliance – a collaboration of European ANSPs that is focussed on SESAR development and deployment through collaboration between its members, helping to avoid duplication of costs and resources.
It is also a founding member of the SESAR Deployment Manager, the entity appointed by the European Commission in December 2014 to oversee the deployment of all of the R&D solutions being developed through SESAR.
One of the most important aspects of SESAR is its role in encouraging the aviation industry to work together. “SESAR has played an absolutely vital role in bringing together people from all parts of European Air Traffic Management and facilitating collaboration on a range of critical issues facing our industry”, explains Martin Rolfe, CEO of NATS. “Whilst there was some good collaboration pre-SESAR, it didn’t have the same level of coordination around it that I think exists today as a result of SESAR and the work of the SJU.”
Executive Director, SESAR Joint Undertaking
SESAR is broken down in to three phases: definition, development and deployment. The Definition phase focused on writing a blueprint for the future of European Air Traffic Management, the material output of which is the European ATM Master Plan. The Development phase focuses on the Research and Development activity being undertaken, while the Deployment phase, which focuses on coordinating the deployment of these R&D concepts into operation, has already begun in earnest.
The Development phase was due to end in 2016 as the Deployment phase began, but while deployment work is already underway, the value all stakeholders have derived from SESAR means that further R&D activity is now going to continue alongside this phase under the auspices of SESAR 2020.
Nevertheless, 2016 still marks a major milestone for what is one of Europe’s largest public-private partnerships (SESAR has already invested €1.9 billion into ATM research and the SESAR Deployment Manager is overseeing a first wave of potential investment of €2.4 billion ). The first phase of SESAR R&D has concluded and, later this year, a new wave will begin. In June, members of the aviation industry will gather in Amsterdam to review progress to date and showcase SESAR’s achievements so far.
There is reason to reflect. As Florian Guillermet, Executive Director of the SESAR Joint Undertaking notes: “Together we have conducted some 350 validations, 30,000 flight trials and invested 20 million hours to ensure that our results meet the operational needs of those who must implement them afterwards”. Namely, the ANSPs, airlines and airports that together form Europe’s aviation network. “Thanks to this intensive work, we have been able to deliver more than 90 industrial prototypes as well as over 60 new or improved operational or technical solutions”, Guillermet adds.
There has been some criticism of whether enough has been done to deliver the Single European Sky (SES) initiative, but SESAR, the technological strand of SES, has generally withstood this criticism. As Martin Rolfe points out however, it’s right to focus on the need to get SESAR from R&D into delivery: “SESAR has to be about deploying and embedding new concepts, tools and technologies that improve the way we manage air traffic and deliver benefits to our customers and local communities. Our starting point is that we want to get solutions that will benefit our customers into operation as quickly as possible.”
And NATS have, through working with many partners, made a good start at getting these concepts in to operation and delivering benefits.
Time-Based Separation is a concept designed to minimise disruption to aircraft landing rates in strong headwinds. During strong headwinds, aircraft fly more slowly over the ground. This has previously resulted in extra spacing between arrivals when it’s windy, increasing delays. At Heathrow, strong winds are the single biggest cause of arrival delay.
However, research undertaken within SESAR has also helped to show that wake vortices – invisible spirals of air that trail from an aircraft’s wingtips creating turbulence behind them – dissipate more quickly in strong headwinds, meaning aircraft can safely be closer together as they come in to land in such conditions.
Time Based Separation is legally mandated to be implemented at 16 major European airports through a requirement known as the ‘Pilot Common Project’ – a piece of European legislation which sets deadlines for the implementation of key SESAR concepts that will improve the overall management of Europe’s airspace.
The legal deadline for implementation is the beginning of 2024 but NATS worked with its partners Heathrow and Lockheed Martin, as well as major users of Heathrow such as British Airways, to accelerate implementation, building on earlier research undertaken through SESAR and with Eurocontrol. This saw TBS go live at Heathrow back in Spring 2015.
Martin Rolfe adds: “We’re on course to halve arrival delays caused by strong headwinds. In November 2015 alone, we estimate TBS saved 25,000 minutes of delay, despite winds of up to 60 knots on final approach.”
Heathrow Director of Airside Operations
“Cooperation across borders enables solutions that wouldn’t be possible for one organisation or even one country working on their own”, observes Dave Curtis. Another SESAR solution delivering benefits at Heathrow, Europe’s busiest hub, is something called ‘Cross-border Extended Arrival Management’, or as NATS prefers to call it ‘XMAN’. It’s not sadly about superhuman powers, unless of course you count getting the British, Irish, Dutch and French all to collaborate on a single project as a superhuman achievement, but it is a landmark project…
XMAN sees controllers from the four countries working together to slow down aircraft when there are significant delays at Heathrow, reducing the amount of time they’d otherwise have to spend in the fuel intensive holding stacks just outside of Heathrow.
Working with commercial partners Snowflake Software and Harris Orthogon, NATS developed a new way to share information about forecast delay with neighbouring ANSPs based on the SESAR System Wide Information Management (SWIM) concept.
Dave Curtis explains: “XMAN research developed a method to pass requests to air traffic controllers in other countries, asking them to slow down specific aircraft that were flying towards Heathrow, if a certain level of delay was anticipated. The aircraft are selected based on whether they are forecast to be delayed in the hold by a set amount of time (originally 8 minutes, now reduced to 7 minutes) before they could land at Heathrow. By slowing the aircraft down while they are further away, they would arrive later in UK airspace and so spend less time holding.”
And that delivers a number of benefits. Firstly, it reduces fuel burn – stacks are much more fuel intensive than cruising. Secondly, and a result of this, it reduces CO2 emissions. And thirdly, it helps to reduce noise experienced by local communities living underneath the stacks.
To date, NATS has recorded a reduction of up to one minute in holding times for those aircraft influenced by the XMAN activity. This equates to annual savings of 15,000 tonnes of CO2, 4,700 tonnes of fuel, or €4 million (based on 2014 fuel figures), as well as a reduction in noise for communities beneath the holding stacks. Heathrow XMAN was originally introduced as a trial but entered permanent operational deployment in November 2015.
This is a new way of working for ANSPs in Europe and demonstrates what can be achieved through cross-border collaboration. Maurice Georges, CEO at DSNA, France’s Air Navigation Services Provider, comments: “The work carried out by NATS, DSNA, MUAC and the IAA on XMAN sets a benchmark for operational collaboration between neighbouring ANSPs and FABs [Functional Airspace Blocks] in support of the Single European Sky.” As he goes on to say, “It is all about working together to deliver SESAR concepts into operation, in order to provide a better service to Europe’s airspace users and to reduce the environmental impact of flying.”
Fuel Efficiency Manager, British Airways
Environment Manager at Bristol Airport
SESAR has also helped to develop innovative new ways of managing arriving aircraft that can help reduce noise for local communities. ‘Point Merge’ offers an alternative to traditional stack holding. Instead of aircraft circling at different heights in traditional ‘holding stacks’, in a ‘Point Merge’ system, aircraft remain at the same level but are instead separated in the horizontal plane by satellite navigation tracks. At exactly the right moment – to the second – the aircraft is turned off the linear hold and onto final approach.
Dave Curtis comments, “The big difference is that these linear holds can be much higher than a traditional stack, potentially up to 20,000 feet, and are therefore quieter for people living underneath and more fuel efficient for the airlines.”
NATS introduced a Point Merge system in February 2016 for arrivals into London City, replacing routes that were previously over land. “The system enables our controllers to further enhance safety, reduce delays and CO2 per flight, and importantly for communities below flightpaths, reduce the area regularly overflown”, Curtis adds.
These benefits are achieved by keeping aircraft higher for longer, which reduces fuel burn, emissions and noise. And the Point Merge system also provides more predictability, allowing pilots to plan a more continuous descent, which in turn reduces noise and emissions.
Head of future ATM and Policy
As well as getting SESAR concepts in to operation as quickly as possible, NATS have also been busy behind the scenes. Some of the work required to get SESAR into operation doesn’t make for easy reading (or understanding!) but is vitally important if the programme as a whole is to have the impact desired across Europe.
Part of that is the establishment of a European-wide Enterprise Architecture known as the European ATM Architecture (EATMA) – in essence, defining how Europe’s ATM system as a whole needs to change and what all the organisations involved in European ATM have to do differently to improve Europe’s airspace. NATS led the award-winning work to deliver this, in partnership with Eurocontrol, Indra, and the ANSPs of Germany (DFS) and Italy (ENAV).
Alison Roberts, who leads the NATS contribution to SESAR, comments, “SESAR is all about working together, but with almost 30 countries involved, all with different systems and different ways of working, a lot of work has to be done behind the scenes to ensure that we can work together more easily in future. The work on EATMA is fundamental to making sure this happens.”
“The level of cooperation that the programme has generated has been unprecedented” explains Florian Guillermet, “it is the motor that has enabled us to fast-track modernisation efforts in a way that seemed impossible ten years ago”.
He’s not wrong. Many would have struggled to envisage a scenario in which the ANSPs, Airlines and Airports of Europe all came together in an Alliance to help improve Europe’s air traffic management system, but that is exactly what has happened.
NATS, along with the A6 Alliance of ANSPs, the A4 Group of Airlines and the SESAR-related Deployment Airport Operators Group (SDAG) – a specific grouping of European airports, came together to form the SESAR Deployment Alliance back in 2013; and in late 2014 they were successful in a joint bid to become the European Commission’s SESAR Deployment Manager. The Deployment Manager has a pivotal role in ensuring that SESAR concepts are rolled out in a synchronised way across Europe and are prioritised based on the benefits they will deliver to airspace users. It will oversee €3 billion of funds in the coming years to help ensure SESAR concepts become an operational reality.
While the deployment work is already underway, the R&D will continue into a new phase known as SESAR 2020. Some of this will look to further enhance solutions that have already been deployed – for example, enhancing Time Based Separation to incorporate additional factors that could enable a further reduction in safe separations, making even more of our capacity-constrained airports. NATS carried out simulations through SESAR early in 2016, which have suggested that the current iteration of TBS is just the start of what’s possible.
Other activities will focus on new and emerging areas. From the transformational concept of trajectory-based operations, which would see air traffic management shift from a tactical to a far more strategic, data-driven approach; through to emerging challenges, such as the growing use of drones or remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), an area where NATS has played a leading role to date through the successful SESAR Project CLAIRE, there is still much to do in SESAR 2020.
For NATS, the focus will continue to be on the areas of research that can offer the greatest benefits to their customers and their operations. “We will be leading work on enhanced arrivals and departures in SESAR 2020, drawing on our experience of managing the London TMA, which is one of the most complex and busy terminal manoeuvring areas in the world”, Alison Roberts comments. “We will also be working on applying our knowledge gained from the work on TBS to departures, on further developing tools that will help manage the UK’s busy and complex airspace, the extension of trajectory management and enhanced data sharing across international borders.”
Martin Rolfe is keen to emphasise the importance of SESAR to NATS, “We have a significant amount of resource invested in SESAR. From all of our teams who have contributed to and, in some cases, project managed SESAR activities and work packages, through to our Engineering and Operations teams who are making sure that we can deploy SESAR solutions into our operation, SESAR influences much of the activity we are undertaking as a business.”
And it’s understandable why when you realise the prize that is at stake. “The 24 solutions in the synchronised deployment plans (Pilot Common Project) alone are expected to deliver approximately €12 billion worth of performance gains for some €3.8 billion investment”, notes Florian Guillermet. “Looking beyond to 2035… the SESAR project could potentially generate annual recurring benefits to the aviation sector of between €8 billion – €15 billion per year”.
Martin Rolfe highlights its importance to NATS: “SESAR has a massive impact on our business: our systems development and our investment programme have at their heart a focus on the need to deploy SESAR solutions into our operation”.
Has SESAR been a success to date? “I would say so, yes” Rolfe adds, “SESAR has encouraged greater cross-border working between Air Navigation Service Providers and it’s driven broader collaboration across the industry as a whole. I don’t think that we’d have completed the amount of R&D or have some of the solutions available today if we hadn’t had SESAR”. He finishes, “That said, there’s of course a lot more to do!”
SESAR 1 Development (R&D) Programme formally gets underway.June 2009
Early research exercise examines extending the airport Arrival Management (AMAN) Horizon, using a scenario based on the five major airports in the London TMA.May – Jul 2011
Improved Point Merge procedures tested for the London TMA, demonstrating benefits in fuel burn, emissions, runway throughput and controller workload.May – Dec 2011
Validation activities at Glasgow airport demonstrate that satellite-based LPV approaches can be safely integrated into the operational environment.Sep – Oct 2011
Extended AMAN validation exercises with partners and customers show the benefits that can be delivered in a high density and complex environment such as the London TMA.Nov 2011
Successful testing of Multi Sector Planning (MSP) concept, whereby a single Planner Controller is planning and organising the traffic for two Tactical Controllers, each of whom is controlling a different sector.May 2012
TOPFLIGHT flight trials launchMay 2013
Bristol Airport selected as UK airport for ATC validation of the Advanced APV concept in medium density, medium complexity airspace.June 2013
Early SWIM protoypes demonstrate potential benefits and win SESAR SWIM awardsNov 2013
UK-Ireland FAB launches first ever trial of SESAR concept of cross-border dynamic sectorisationJan 2014
Heathrow XMAN (cross-border Extended Arrival Management) trial, involving French, Dutch, Irish and Scottish controllers commencesApril 2014
New satellite-based PBN STAR arrivals introduced at Bristol AirportSept 2014
SESAR Deployment Alliance, involving NATS plus over 30 other industry stakeholders, appointed SESAR Deployment ManagerDec 2014
Project EVA trial launches, promoting use of ADS-B by General AviationDec 2014
TBS enters Limited Operational Service at HeathrowMarch 2015
On 30 March 2015, with a 35 knot headwind on final approach, an average of two more aircraft per hour land at Heathrow and delays are halved when compared to similar pre-TBS conditionsMarch 2015
Heathrow XMAN projects wins IHS Jane’s awardMarch 2015
TBS enters Full Operational Service at HeathrowMay 2015
First flight in UK by an unmanned aircraft in controlled and unsegregated airspaceOct 2015
European ATM Architecture (EATMA) project, led by NATS, wins international Enterprise Architecture award and becomes the supporting architecture description for the European ATM Master Plan.Oct 2015
Heathrow XMAN enters permanent operational deploymentNov 2015
Over 25,000 minutes of delay saved at Heathrow as a result of TBSNov 2015
Point Merge arrivals system introduced for London City, the deployment of which is co-funded through SESARFeb 2016
Enhanced TBS simulations held, testing the concept of Time-Based Static Pairwise Separation with Optimised Runway Delivery and 2NM Minimum Radar SeparationFeb 2016
Participation in first multi-vendor, cross-border collaboration testing ‘Virtual Centres’ conceptFeb 2016
Early simulation of trajectory prediction and conflict detection tools applied in the London TMA airspace, showing positive resultsMarch 2016
TBS recognised at inaugural European Commission SES awards and also wins IHS Jane’s award.March 2016
NATS confirmed as member of SESAR 2020March 2016