A Remote Review

The great and good of air traffic management gathered in Madrid last month for the World ATM Congress. All anyone could talk about was remote towers. Some were even seen wearing badges with ‘I heart remote towers’ emboldened across them, writes Aviation Advocacy‘s Andrew Charlton.
Remote towers are taking off, if you’ll excuse the pun. Many are keen to join the cult. There was talk of remote towers operating in Dubai, Germany, Norway and Singapore as well as further operations in Sweden. The idea of extending the notion of remote management to entire airport operations was also touted. LFV, the Swedish ANSP, were keen to be sure that everybody realised they were the leaders in this area.
As positive as the story is around remote towers, it flags up one of the weaknesses of the ATM industry: an obsession with technology as the solution to all its problems.
The recent technological advances in the ATM industry, such as remote towers, ADS-B and digital communication should be applauded, but need to be kept in context. That context includes new aircraft, huge demands on the airspace and new ways to handle the big data we are generating in an efficient and airline-focused manner.
Fancy gadgets and new technology – such as remote towers, ADS-B and digitalisation – are exciting and sexy, sure. However, working out how airspace can be managed in a more efficient and effective way is just as important, if a bit dull sounding.
In Madrid, this year, as with every year, the industry was happy to talk about the new technology they were creating, but less keen to talk about the context. Nor were delegates all that keen to note that the developments mean that technology can no longer be blamed as the limiting factor for the continuing issues ATM faces. We have the technology; maybe we have to now address the context.
The industry is in need of a culture change if this technology is to be fully exploited to face these issues. Without a clear goal and focus, there is a real risk that ATM will carry on being done as it always has been, but now with expensive new systems adding only incremental gains. Airlines and passengers will not feel the full benefit of the investments, despite funding them, one way or another.
The truth is lurking in plain view. There is no incentive for the current ANSPs to change. They are the incumbents after all. CANSO, as their association, has to represent their views, even if privately some within CANSO accept that something has got to give.
Nevertheless, CANSO should be putting forward the message that all parts of the industry need to be successful for the aviation industry to be successful. IATA’s stunning admission that service provider costs were not material should be seized on. Sadly, CANSO’s insistence on continuing to refer to the industry’s ecosystem as the ‘aviation value chain’ does not send a message of forward looking-ness.
For the first three years of the Madrid Congress, the conference ended with a session looking twenty years ahead. This year, it lowered its sights: this year the question was what will the industry look like in five years? That brought forward a spirited discussion, but other than Boeing’s Neil Planzer again noting that no-one seems to have realised that aircraft are no longer dumb, the solution was to use new technology to go faster.
As Mandy Rice-Davies so very nearly said, it would be, wouldn’t it? The incumbents cannot change from within and cannot see a new path, so focused are they on the here and now. Changing the culture of the ATM industry will be no easy task. Implementing remote towers, ADS-B and digitalisation is easy in comparison.
As long as ANPS remain state-mandated monopolies, they have little incentive to radically change their ways. Changing the ownership and responsibilities would clearly help. Introducing competition would be better still. But there is a more radical approach. Maybe we need new ANSPs or at least change our definition of what is an ANSP.
In the drone space, we are getting new ANSPs. NASA’s UAV Traffic Management (UTM) project is continuing to develop and has the backing of a number of very large and influential companies, such as Amazon Prime and Google. The FAA is also involved. They are putting together a platform that a number of service providers are joining, to give each of the drone operators the service they are looking for.
Interestingly, in Europe, the Empire is fighting back. A number of the ANSPs are now looking at the concept and trying to see how they can be involved. Replicating the sovereignty-based national approach for controlling drones is exactly the sort of broken, ham-fisted solution we should be trying to avoid. We want seamless, not seamful. When you are a hammer, everything is a nail, and for Europe’s ANSPs, the very thought of seamless ATM, even if only for drones, seems to be a seam too far.
So maybe it is time to go back to the future. If the issue is the incumbency problem, why not make more ANSPs, or more accurately, different ANSPs? Make ATM in controlled airspace like the NASA UTM proposal. Make each airline responsible for purchasing the ATM it wants and needs, when and where it needs it. If each airline was responsible for its ATM, instead of merely being the hapless recipients of whatever ‘service’ the ANSPs deliver, with no control over what they get, or what they pay, we would de-fragment the service. No airline wants fragmented service delivery.
Why back to the future? Because when ATM was started, it was done by each airline, for itself. Glenn A Gilbert, after whom the ATCA award for outstanding service to ATM was named, was a United Airlines employee.
The current ANSPs would become service vendors, trying to attract customers to the services they can offer. The sovereignty issue will not arise. If an ANSP choses to offer services only in its current airspace, that is well and good. Other ANSPs might try to find services that can be offered across borders.
Nevertheless, judging by conversations on the sidelines of Madrid, rather than talking about this sort of approach, next year will be all about drones. Stand by for a further trip along the technology:culture interface. This time, however, ANSPs may find that UTM is forced on them by those traditionally outside the sector, whose success does depend on continually adapting and innovating. That is not a space the ANSPs are found in all that often.
Even the airlines are starting to get worried. Speaking at the CANSO Operations Standing Committee, Rob Eagles, IATA’s director ATM and infrastructure, gave a master class in passive aggression about drones. Unless the traditional, incumbent aviation industry fights back, soon, he warned, companies with a very directed and focused agenda will force outcomes that may not be in the best interest of the airlines and ANSPs.
What he failed to mention was that if those companies continue on their current path, they will be significantly larger than his members. That may have something to do with their acceptance of the need to be continually adapting and innovating.

1 Comment

  1. This review scares me for several reasons:
    – a too big reliance on technologies instead of humans brings big, deadly and costly failures. Just remember what happened to AFR447 and later accidents, almost all airline crashes where caused by too complex technology, not fully understood (or understandable) and low exercising of human skills, badly needed in bad times.
    – remote towers are nice and efficient in small airports, but what happens when aircraft not equipped with the latest bells and whistle want to operate there? Are they forbidden? If so, this will kill GA, and I’m afraid that it is what most ANSPs and regulators would really love to see, thanks to their bad foresight. And what happens when the technology they depend on fails, especially when applied to bigger airports?
    – depending almost completely on a single user type (read: airlines), makes the ANSPs slaves of those and of their wills and desires, without a real clear thinking of what we want and expect from the future, and how it will evolve;
    – a race to competition between ANSPs and their privatization, while in part healthy, will bring mostly cost reductions in order to advertise lower prices. That will bring great suffering both for the employees (especially for ATCOs), and for the overall safety and quality of the system. Just look at the way some low cost airlines operate, and many big multinational companies, and you’ll see the truth of it.
    – drones are going to be a big part of the future airspace system, but rushing them in because of outside pressure is going to be extremely dangerous until their systems are so evolved that they can be safely mixed with aircraft with people on board. And we are beginning to see why they must be kept far away from manned airplanes (the number of near miss with drones are increasing at an alarming rate).
    I strongly believe that the future of ATM and aviation in general cannot be decided by single actors (or categories of them), but it must be an integration of the needs, wants and hopes of all the kind of users and providers in a fair and honest way.
    No one should decide for all the others, no matter their strength or numbers.

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