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MAY 2017

Industry Insight Special Report

Seamless Asian Sky stuck in the slow lane

It has been almost a decade since the Seamless Asian Sky Initiative was established to improve air traffic management efficiency in the region. But as chief correspondent, Tom Ballantyne, has discovered it is falling far short of its stated goals.

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May 1st 2017

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Asia’s airlines hope a planned meeting of the region’s transport ministers next year will provide the political muscle needed for the Seamless Asian Sky Initiative to finally clock up some results. Read More » The air traffic management (ATM) program, established almost a decade ago and intended to introduce common ATM standards in the region has been going nowhere fast for several years.

Despite concerted lobbying by airline associations and other interested parties, many of the more than 40 nations covered by the program lack the political will to move the program forward.

At the December 2016 Director Generals of Civil Aviation (DGCA) meeting in Colombo, it was agreed that action to make the Seamless Asian Sky effective must be taken to a higher political level of advocacy.

Details of the meeting have not been officially announced, but the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Bangkok-based regional director, Arun Mishra, confirmed to Orient Aviation it will take place in the first half of 2018. “The dates, along with other arrangements, are being finalized with the hosts, China,” he said.

International Air Transport Association (IATA) Singapore-based Asia-Pacific regional director for safety and flight operations, Blair Cowles, said the meeting will address a key gap in the program’s progress.

“In my line of work we deal very much with the director generals or their staff, but we also need to engage with political or senior bureaucratic level individuals. We view the proposed meeting as a positive step in bringing regional transport ministers into the discussion,” he said. The meeting will allow IATA to present the airlines’ agenda to key decision makers from across the region.

Airlines, IATA and the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA) have spent hundreds of hours lobbying to resolve serious issues with the Seamless Asian Sky. They include major disparities in regulations imposed by various Asia-Pacific countries. thay range from differences in separation rules for aircraft in flight and rising air traffic control charges, to uncoordinated aviation regulations and poorly planned investment in air traffic management (ATM) infrastructure.

Cowles said: “We are seeing little implementation of the provisions of the Seamless Asian Sky. It was a good idea and a good framework, but it appears to exist as a document rather than something that is living and breathing and can guide investment and equipage decisions. So the snapshot is: we are disappointed with the lack of implementation of the plan.”

Cowles was direct. “Our theme this year is that there is a lack of joined up thinking. States, Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) or other interested groups are looking within their own borders but they are not looking beyond their own borders to their neighbours or to develop inter-regional solutions.

“Joined up thinking ensures that what you are doing in your jurisdiction fits with what is happening in other jurisdictions,” he said.

'There is a lack of meaningful consultation with airspace users (airlines). “It’s no good investing in technology if the airlines are not going to use it. While emphasizing joined-up thinking we are pushing for consultation and collaboration with the airspace users'
Blair Cowles
International Air Transport Association (IATA) Asia-Pacific regional director for safety and flight operations

In the latest edition of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore’s (CAAS), Bridging Skies, Chiang Hai Eng, director Asia-Pacific Affairs for the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO), said Asia-Pacific ANSPs are at vastly different stages of development.

“Many of them recognize the need to build up their capabilities to keep pace with air traffic growth, but there are developing ANSPs that struggle to do this because of insufficient funding and expertise. There also are many advanced ANSPs with ambitious modernization plans.”

To complicate matters, ANSPs do not exist in isolation. Flights crossing national borders and multiple flight information regions are controlled by more than one ANSP with varying levels of ATM services, he said.

Chiang said multilateral co-operation to maximize the use of modern aircraft technologies and synchronize airborne and ground-based automation is crucial. “It is imperative ANSPs work closely with their neighbours to ensure that ATM systems and procedures are harmonized and interoperable.

Cowles said there also is a lack of meaningful consultation with airspace users (airlines). “It’s no good investing in technology if the airlines are not going to use it. While emphasizing joined-up thinking we are pushing for consultation and collaboration with the airspace users,” he said.

It’s not all bad news. Cross-border initiatives include the Distributed Multi-Nodal Air Traffic Flow Management (ATFM) Network, a multi-nodal ATM project involving Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong, with China, Indonesia, Malaysia and other Asia-Pacific nations contributing to it.

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 said.

There are a host of ATM projects underway, but the absence of coordination is evident. They mostly involve developments within States and not between States. NAVBLUE, the new Airbus subsidiary dedicated to flight operations and air traffic management, has finalized a contract to implement the ATM cooperation program in Vietnam.

It will enhance safety and efficiency and focus on the country’s two largest airports: Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. With forecast air passenger annual growth of 16% to18% in Vietnam, the VATM and Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam (CAAV) believed it was necessary for the country to start building procedures, technologies and skill sets that will support the increase in demand at Tan Son Nhat International Airport (HCM) and Noi Bai International Airport (Hanoi).

In Myanmar, the Department of Civil Aviation has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Aireon to develop a concept of operations and benefits analysis for the deployment of Aireon’s space-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) service.

Separately, in March this year, Myanmar completed site acceptance of Comsoft Solutions’ AIM system that transformed their aeronautical information management and now supports their increased air traffic.

'The communications links are good but we are using large procedural separations, from our point of view for no valid reason. That’s where the lowest common denominator really comes in. It’s no good having five miles (separation) at one end, five miles at the other and 50 to 100 miles in the middle because you default to that large separation standard because you have to achieve it before the aircraft enters the piece of airspace where that’s the standard. So, very, very slow progress. There have been a few incremental improvements, particularly over the last 12 to 18 months, but that area of separation standardization is a key focal point for us to avoid that unnecessary inefficiency being introduced into the system'

Air traffic in Myanmar has been rising dramatically, with international passengers increasing by more than 65% between 2012 and 2015. It is predicted the nation will welcome more than 7.5 million tourists by 2020.

India has officially launched its Central Command Centre, Air Traffic Flow Management (C-ATM), becoming the seventh country in the world to implement the Air Traffic Flow Control (ATFM) measures. The C-ATFM system will primarily balance capacity against demand to achieve optimum use of airport, airspace and aircraft at every Indian airport with capacity restraints.

Malaysia’s Technology Depository Agency (TDA) has teamed up with Boustead Heavy Industries to develop a national airspace policy in addition to establishing an airspace management centre.

The Civil Aviation Department (CAD) of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is using technology developed by NAV CANADA for its Air Traffic Services Data Management System (ATSDMS) to manage, integrate and display real-time air traffic control (ATC) information.

The CAD handled a record high number of overflights during the busy Lunar New Year holidays in late January and early February. Flights travelling across the Hong Kong Flight Information Region peaked at 939 flights in one single day (January 25). The previous record was set on August 3, 2016, with 936 flights. A new record also set in handling over 2,000 was daily flight movements for 11 consecutive days.

There also have been several joint initiatives launched. Airways New Zealand and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) signed an MoU last year to improve capabilities in air traffic management, including the exchange of information and expertise, professional development and collaboration on research. Airways chief executive, Ed Sims, said the MOU demonstrated the importance of closer Asia-Pacific collaboration.

“The Asia-Pacific is facing a period of unprecedented growth with demand for highly skilled aviation professionals only set to grow. Airways New Zealand is delighted to share its expertise in aviation training with CAAS,” he said.

CAAS also has signed an MOU with the Civil Aviation Bureau of Japan (JCAB) to jointly promote air traffic management transformation in the region. CAAS director general, Kevin Shum, said it developed CAAS’s vision to make Singapore a Centre of Excellence (CoE) for ATM.

“With our combined experience and expertise in the region, I am confident we will be able to develop valuable ATM solutions for our countries and the Asia Pacific region.”

The head of JCAB, Hitoshi Ishizaki, is convinced Singapore and Japan could gear up both ATM modernization and Seamless Asian Sky realization by reinforcing mutual cooperation in this area.

While all of these developments represent advances in ATM, industry insiders said many of them don’t contribute directly to the Seamless Asian Sky initiative and they don’t necessarily gel with what is happening in neighbouring countries.

IATA’s Cowles described progress in achieving standardization aircraft separation as “glacial”. There have been incremental improvements, he said, particularly on the main trunk routes and there is willingness by most countries or ANSPs to address the issue.

“But we still have fully surveilled pieces of airspace. They are within radar radius coverage. The communications links are good, but we are using large procedural separations, from our point of view for no valid reason. That’s where the lowest common denominator really comes in. It’s no good having five miles (separation) at one end, five miles at the other and 50 to 100 miles in the middle because you default to that large separation standard. You have to achieve it before the aircraft enters the piece of airspace where that’s the standard,” he said.

“So, very, very slow progress. There have been a few incremental improvements, particularly over the last 12 to 18 months, but that area of separation standardization is a key focal point for us to avoid unnecessary inefficiency being introduced into the system.”

There also is a “a really bad problem” in the region with increased air charges, he said. Air space users are not being consulted. “If you are trying to fund a gold-plated ATM investment scheme that isn’t going to generate any service benefits for your airspace users then its a waste of resources and places an unnecessary burden on the airlines,” said Cowles.

“We have Equilibrium, which emphasizes collaboration with the airspace users as you go about setting your charges, particularly when determining your investment programs and infrastructure improvements. In the region we are seeing many investment decisions that provide no discernible improvement in service.”

Cowles said it is like buying the very latest iPhone and only using it for messaging. “It’s no good having the best system in Singapore and the best system in Hong Kong if all the airspace in between is behind the times and using big separation,” he said.

“Don’t be afraid to come and talk to us or AAPA or your airline customers for guidance about airspace user’s requirements.

“Through ICAO and regional co-operation agreements there is a lot of willingness on the part of the thought leaders in the region, like Singapore, China and Japan, to share best practice and to help to bring our overall system performance up. We have to cut across broader sovereignty or State issues that transcend aviation.”

While it can’t be used as a direct comparison, one study showed that fragmentation of Europe’s airspace and lack of harmonization between airspace blocks resulted in European ATC costs of $1,050 per flight compared with $600 in the U. S.

Put another way, of the $17.7 billion paid by airlines to European ATC each year, about $4 billion was the result of inefficiency. On average, a flight was 12% longer than it needed to be.

Given that there are more traffic flows along major trunk routes in Asia‑Pacific than in most other parts of the world, the savings that could be generated from Seamless Asian Sky would be enormous, and that does not include fuel costs.

With the Asia-Pacific fast heading towards being the world’s largest aviation market, there will be a huge increase in aircraft needed to carry them. So swifter implementation of an Seamless Asian Sky is imperative.

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