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Seamless Skies

written by Tom Ballantyne | February 11, 2020

This feature is from the February 2020 Edition of Australian Aviation

It was the airline industry’s grand plan for Asia’s air traffic system. Seamless Skies would bring harmonisation to air traffic management, create efficient flows along the region’s airways and save tens of millions of dollars in costly fuel. So, why hasn’t it come to pass?

The North Asian Version of the Asia Pacific Distributed Multi-Nodal Air Traffic Flow Management (ATFM) project involves China, Japan and Korea. (Source: Rob Finlayson)

Ask Blair Cowles, Regional Director for Safety and Flight Operations (SFO) in Asia Pacific for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) what is happening with Asian Seamless Skies and his response is unequivocal.

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“The sad reality is there has been very little progress from an airline perspective… there has been very, very limited progress in driving forward anything to do with Seamless Skies.”

He is far from alone in that assessment. “It’s easy to come up with a slogan like Seamless Asian skies,” says Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA) Director-General Andrew Herdman.

“That sets the way forward as a sort of common goal. Delivering on it as you found in Europe is much more challenging. I think the efforts are continuing but the pace of progress has been disappointing. I think that has been acknowledged.”

The grand plan, in other words, is stuck in the slow lane, a decade after discussions began with the aim of transforming air traffic management across the world’s fastest-growing aviation market. It promised to be a mammoth task, given the region covers vast airspace, with 49 Flight Information Regions (FIRs) in 39 States, many of them with different levels of regulation, technical ability and system sophistication.

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Nevertheless, the action was imperative. When the first meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) Asia/Pacific Seamless ATM Planning Group (APSAPG) took place in Bangkok in early 2012 – though it had actually been established two years earlier – the region already handled 26 per cent of global passenger numbers and forecasts saw that rise to at least 40 per cent within two decades.

Aircraft numbers were expected to grow three-fold. Today, IATA projects the Asia-Pacific will have 3.5 billion passengers by 2036, twice that of North America and Europe combined. This will make the region the aviation industry’s biggest customer for years and the largest buyer of new aviation technology.

It was inconceivable, said ICAO, that traffic increases of this magnitude could be handled effectively and efficiently without significant enhancement of air traffic management processes.

“Failure to act will not only compromise safety in the Region but will also limit the economic benefit of aviation if people and goods cannot be moved safely, efficiently and in a cost-effective manner,” it added.

Yet, by the time Asian Transport Ministers met in Beijing in 2018 progress had been pretty much non-existent, a report card likely to be repeated when they meet again in India this year (2020). Cowles has described that progress as “glacial”.

The major problem in Asia was that, unlike Europe or the United States, it was not a single common market so a “Single Sky” was not an option. Seamless Skies were the alternative if States could be persuaded to standardize their rules and work together to smooth traffic flows and dramatically improve overall ATM efficiency.

So far, that has proved to be a tough ask. IATA’s Cowles, who is based in Singapore but spoke to Australian Aviation from the airline group’s headquarters in Geneva, said States continue to think and act within their own borders.

“Whereas the region is so interlinked they need to go inter-regional and not just manage traffic on the basis of what’s happening in terms of their own particular FIR. Issues that were prevalent five or ten years ago remain key blockers.”

The end result, he says, is that the entire system ends up operating at the level of the lowest common denominator.

“If you have a route going from A to B via D and C, A and D can be the most sophisticated well-equipped technologically advanced ATM units in the region but if D or C have just been lagging behind and have a different separation standard the whole route, the way air traffic is managed essentially has to go by that more prohibitive standard. That’s why you need this thinking ‘whole of route’ and the part they play is vital to ensure the efficiency of the system within the region. One of the things we come up against is there is no central body within the region either in a regulatory sense or an air traffic management sense. Everything is vested in the individual states.”

Malaysia has recently suffered a downgrade of its aviation safety status (Source: Rob Finlayson)

AAPA’s Herdman says the situation is extremely complicated. “If you look at the Global Air Navigation Plan which is the ICAO master plan, the challenge is how does that cascade down into regional and national plans and how do we track progress towards implementing those things. One of the problems of ATM is you can’t cut over to a new system. It has to run continuously. You can’t have gaps. You can’t have transitions to new technology.”

“Essentially you have to continue serving all users from general aviation up to major commercial aviation and now other users in low airspace such as drones or upper airspace where there is an increasing number of space rocket launches for the increasing number of satellites that are being deployed.”

“So, ATM is a never-ending challenge. You have to keep on upgrading the system, but you can’t press the pause button. The efforts are continuing and the collaboration between different countries which is a feature of Asia because you don’t have a central coordinating body, you don’t have a central body like Eurocontrol, which serves as co-ordination for flow control within Europe even though you have multiple air navigation services providers.”

“In Asia, we have to try and coordinate traffic flow management across the region without having central coordination. That involves different organizational institution arrangements and the way in which the technology is linked up also has to be customized for that environment. There is no lack of effort, but the evidence is it is challenging and progress has been slower than was hoped.”

Harmonisation isn’t the only challenge. Cowles points out that with traffic forecast to double by the mid-2030s there are implications not only for ATM but the personnel that will be required to enable the growing demand on services.

“One of the things that has been acknowledged in terms of accommodating this growth and managing it is the lack of government level involvement or realization that this is an issue and providing the ATM and civil aviation authorities in various states with the appropriate resources to plan and deal with it.”

“At the ministerial meeting in India, there will be an attempt to bring the highest levels of government into the process of trying to convey the message that each government needs to be adequately supporting the ATM and civil aviation movement as a priority to accommodate this growth both in an ATM sense but also providing the regulatory framework and oversight. Some of it isn’t even any more a question of equipment. It’s operational philosophy or the way they operate.”

Unfortunately, he suggests, some States only act when they are subject to downgrades after ICAO safety audits, such as those which have been imposed in recent years on Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand. While airlines themselves are operating safely these downgrades are imposed because of a failure by states to properly implement basic ICAO rules or meet ICAO safety standards or have a lack of sufficient staff for proper oversight of aviation operations.

It results in various restraints on carriers, from a total ban on flying to the U.S. or Europe to not being allowed to launch new routes or change aircraft type.

“When those downgrades happen is when the upper levels of the government actually take an interest and start providing some resources. It’s tough but an important message to the political and senior bureaucrat levels of the State that aviation is a key enabler and driver of economic growth and they need to actually be adequately funding and resourcing the system at the State level, not just regarding aviation as a revenue source for the country. They need to take the big view that a successful aviation system will have a significant and positive impact on national economic performance.”

Japan, South Korea and China share responsibility for air traffic within the ‘AKARA’ corridor. (Source: Rob Finlayson)

There are already problems around the region in terms of ATM bottlenecks and congestion. Herdman says that longer-term the challenges are how do you double capacity, how do you modernize the ATM infrastructure and how do you improve the coordination between the different providers of air navigation services.

“That is challenging wherever you are in the world, improving flow rates and the desire for seamless connectivity between different flight information regions and their respective ATM authorities. The technology only takes us so far. Essentially ATM is not an automated business.”

“You’ve got ground-based air traffic controllers using the latest technology, but it is still very labour intensive and it relies on processes and procedures, so the integration is not so much technical integration as the organizational and institutional factors around collaboration across different FIRs.”

“From an airline point of view, it’s clear what we want but in practice, no matter where you are in the world modernizing ATM is challenging, whether you are in North America, Europe or Asia-Pacific.”

While there is clearly widespread disappointment at the lack of progress on Seamless Skies there are some positive developments. Cowles says the Asia Pacific Distributed Multi-Nodal Air Traffic Flow Management (ATFM) project is progressing forward as a good example that regional cooperation can work. That project involves Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong, with China, Indonesia, Malaysia and other Asia-Pacific nations contributing. There also is a North Asian version of the project between China, Japan and Korea.

“They are good examples, but they are exceptions rather than the rule,” Cowles says.

Jeff Poole, then Director-General of CANSO (the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization), who stepped down from the post last June (2019), also identified ATFM as a successful regional innovation underway when he spoke at the groups Asia Pacific Conference in Fukuoka, Japan earlier in the year.

Other examples were the adoption of space-based automatic-dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), implementing regional system-wide information management (SWIM) model for data exchange, implementing remote and smart towers, developing long-range ATFM concepts of operations and investigating unmanned aircraft systems traffic management (UTM) options.

“Working together to map out the adoption of new technologies and develop the standards and strategies for ANSPs to tackle challenges at the local level is a key part of this”, said Poole.

“By championing innovation and committing to a strong regional focus, ATM experts in the region can find the best operational solutions and strategies for seamless ATM and make the best possible single Asian sky in the Asian way. Of course, States and regulators also have important roles to play in facilitating that transformation.”

“By encouraging cross-border cooperation and regional and sub-regional airspace solutions, and taking a truly performance-based approach to regulation that allows ANSPs to act like normal businesses, ATM experts can build seamless, safe and efficient skies in Asia that will both accommodate and facilitate the huge economic growth here”.

Narita is one of many airports in the region that suffers from aircraft congestion. (Source: Rob Finlayson)

Cowles says that in trying to extract some positives from the situation he does see that in recent times ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, has started to become more active around ATM as an enabler of ASEAN seamless skies covering the bloc’s 10 member countries.

“That is positive, that a sort of sub-group of the region has been more proactive but in a general sense it is still existing more as a concept and a goal rather than anything that’s being pursued with vigour in generating positive results in the near term.”

While ASEAN has officially had ‘Open Skies’ since 2015, little has happened on the ATM front. One airline official who has been lobbying for some time for the bloc to act is Tony Fernandes, group chief executive of the big-budget airline group AirAsia. He has repeatedly said it is time for ASEAN institutions to step forward, for commonality and for standardization, and for quality.

“We should have one ASEAN regulator for air traffic, one ASEAN safety standard, one pilot training qualification, so there will be mobility of the workforce. So, ASEAN is not just about Open Skies, it’s about having some ASEAN standardisation and institutions to further advance the ASEAN aviation industry.”

It had been hoped that the development of ASEAN Seamless Skies might eventually evolve and widen by attracting other participants such as China, India, Japan, South Korea and Australia to join in, but this now appears unlikely, even in the medium term.

Hong Kong participates in the Asia Pacific Distributed Multi-Nodal Air Traffic Flow Management (ATFM) project. (Source: Rob Finlayson)

Another positive story is in the South West Pacific, among the scattered island States such as Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Cook Islands and Papua New Guinea. “There is quite a bit of effort now going into that part of the world, from ICAO in particular, to actually genuinely make sure those countries don’t get left behind,” says Cowles.

“Those countries have some of the worst scores in terms of effective implementation of ICAO measures. So, there has been a study this year and next year there’s going to be the roll-out of a project to offer more support to those states and actually try and bring them up in terms of the implementation of everything across the aviation spectrum and also air traffic management. All those states rely on aviation but have a population that is almost too small to support anything sophisticated or support a bureaucracy that is equipped to effectively manage aviation.”

“ICAO is going to focus on having a dedicated officer to try and help those states and we of course support that because whilst in terms of numbers it is not important it is important for those communities and the airspace above those islands is also important for the long-haul traffic. I’m just tabling that as a positive that the region as a group can come together and highlight an area of particular need and devote some time and resources and energy to try and improve it.”

A more recent breakthrough has been the apparent resolution of an ATM issue that has troubled airlines for years. It concerns responsibility in the so-called “AKARA corridor” which handles air traffic across the South China Sea between South Korea, Japan and China.

Under an agreement forged in 1983, when there were only 10 flights a day using the airway, South Korean air traffic controllers handle aircraft flying North-South while Japanese controllers directed East-West flights, many of them out of Shanghai.

This is still the case today and the problem is that this air corridor has become one of the busiest portions of airspace in the Asia-Pacific region, with 800 flights daily. Worse, the South Korean and Japanese controllers operate on different radio frequencies, making communications more difficult for pilots who may be dealing with emergency in-flight situations, or needing to change altitude to avoid turbulence or bad weather.

There have been two recent near-misses blamed on conflicting air traffic control instructions.

In 2018 a FedEx freighter nearly collided with two Korean low-cost carrier aircraft and in 2019 two commercial aircraft also flew too close to each other. After 18 months of negotiations involving ICAO, South Korea, Japan And China an agreement in principal was presented to ICAO’s Assembly in Montreal last September.  It will involve South Korea taking over Japan’s role and handling all traffic in all directions using the airway.

Sources say ICAO Council President Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu was directly involved with the talks and the outcome is a “potentially satisfactory compromise that resolves the safety and capacity concerns, maintains the best aspects of the current traffic flow and incorporates nearly all of the operational requirements of all three States”.

The four parties involved are now working on an implementation plan and the agreement is expected to come into force sometime this year (2020).

Whatever the various advances that are being made, however, there is little doubt that Asian Seamless Skies remain a distant airline dream.

With the region plagued by congested airports and an infrastructure shortfall on the ground in the face of unprecedented growth concerns, as well as dire warnings of severe pilot and aircraft technician shortages over the next two decades, the ongoing failure to make real progress in ATM harmonization is yet another concern for the future of the region’s aviation industry.

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