Europe reveals vision of unified upper airspace

European ATM modernisers are proposing a radical new approach to the EU region’s upper airspace architecture that takes full advantage of modern technology and decouples service provision from local infrastructure.

The origins of the proposal date back to 2017 when the European Parliament called on the European Commission to implement the concept of a European Upper Flight Information Region as an early step to establishing a trans-European motorway of the sky, in alignment with the Single European Sky.

Designed to build on the achievements of the SESAR technology modernisation programme, the Commission’s transport directorate tasked the SESAR Joint Undertaking (SESAR JU) to carry out the study in close coordination with the Network Manager and through industry consultation.

The SESAR JU vision of an architecture that is supported by progressive increases in the levels of automation, cyber secure data sharing and connectivity is targeted at en route airspace.

“Airspace configuration and design will be optimised from a European network point of view, connecting airports and taking due consideration of major traffic flows across Europe,” said the SESAR JU.

Resources will be connected and optimised across the network leveraging modern technology through a data rich and cyber-secured connected ecosystem, allowing operational harmonisation and increasing the level of performance of air traffic controls centres across Europe.

In such an environment, service providers would be able to collaborate and operate as if they were one organisation with both airspace and service provision optimised according to traffic patterns.

SESAR JU added that this architecture will also be more compatible with its overall vision of a more profound evolution of core air traffic management capabilities driven by new forms of traffic including drones and super-high altitude operations.

This new architecture will:

  • deliver an optimised airspace structure, supported by operational harmonisation;
  • enable ATM capacity and scalability to handle all en route airspace air traffic safely and efficiently, even according to the highest traffic growth forecast or during traffic growth stagnation or downturn;
  • allow all flights to operate along (or at least as close as possible to) user-preferred routing across the entire airspace;
  • promote optimal use of ATM resources, reducing current inefficiencies and ATM costs for airspace users and society;
  • increase the overall resilience of the system to all types of incidents, in terms of safety, efficiency and capacity;
  • continue to facilitate the civil and military access to European airspace.

The solutions underpinning the proposed architecture have been grouped into two focus areas addressing respectively two side of the same capacity challenge – capacity and airspace, and scalability and resilience. Both focus areas are part of the transition from today’s operational concept to trajectory-based operations as envisaged in the Phase C of the European ATM Master Plan.

The airspace architecture study proposes a progressive transition strategy towards the Single European Airspace System in three five-year periods, while building on known good practices and quick wins, as well as existing initiatives such as SESAR.

The aim is to enable progressively additional capacity in order to cope with the significant growth in traffic, while maintaining safety, improving flight efficiency and reducing environmental impact.

  • By 2025, in addition to the already planned roll-out of first SESAR results, new programmes on airspace re-configuration and operational excellence have delivered quick wins. Regulation has evolved to support the transition ahead;
  • By 2030, the implementation of the next generation of SESAR technologies should be completed with the roll-out of virtualisation techniques and dynamic airspace configuration, supported by the gradual introduction of higher levels of automation support. The new architecture should enable resources (including data) to be shared across the network supporting a flexible and seamless civil/military coordination allowing for more scalable and resilient service delivery to all airspace users;
  • By 2035, the network should operate at its optimum capability having fully evolved from a system based on punctuality to a system based on predictability across a network that can safely and effectively accommodate 16 million flights (+50 per cent compared to 2017).

In order to initiate the transition towards a Single European Airspace System, SESAR JU is making the following three recommendations:

  • launch an airspace re-configuration programme supported by an operational excellence programme to achieve quick wins;
  • realise the de-fragmentation of European skies through virtualisation and the free flow of data among trusted users;
  • create a legal and financial framework that rewards early movers.

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