Decongesting the Skies: Technological developments in air traffic management

In the past decade, air traffic all over the world has witnessed exponential growth, barring the decline caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Airport Council International has tracked positive growth as far as air traffic is concerned. According to its report, nearly 72 per cent of the pre-pandemic traffic levels have already been achieved by December 2022, amounting to nearly 6.5 billion passengers worldwide. In the next 20 years, worldwide air traffic is expected to reach 20 billion. In the same period, airports worldwide are expected to operate about 154 million aircraft, with the US, China and India leading the markets. Ow­ing to the growing demand, massive investments are being made in upgradation of existing airports and development of new greenfield airports in India.

Boeing’s ATM journey

Boeing is primarily an original equipment manufacturer in the aerospace ecosystem, which builds airplanes. However, at the same time, it is actively involved in pre-departure to post-arrival works. For air traffic management (ATM), it has an airspace operational efficiency team spread all across the globe, which helps collaborate with various stakeholders to improve aviation safety, efficiency and capacity. Boeing’s ATM modernisation vision sees it collaborate with regulators and air navigation service providers, airports and airlines to understand and act upon current and future aviation requirements. It identifies air and ground capacity constraints and defines solutions to support operational objectives. It has adopted an integrated approach to improving aviation system safety, capacity and efficiency.

Boeing’s modernisation portfolio comprises of various services such as transport transformational services, which involve analysis of trajectory-based operations, departure and arri­v­al; navigation services, involving procedu­re design, and airspace and airport optimisation; capacity management services; and modelling and simulation services.

Technologies deployed to tackle ATM issues

The number of airports in India has grown from 74 to 141 in the span of the past eight years. According to media reports, the number of airports in the country is likely to reach 220 in the next two to three years. With more airlines buying aircraft, and new routes and destinations entering the system, the skies are bound to get crowded. The growing demand will certainly put additional pressure on the air traffic system, which already manages thousands of flights on multiple routes every day, thereby creating a capacity mismatch. With airspace being a finite resource and many airports already suffering from limitations in airspace capacity, the growing demand will eventually limit this resource as well as air transport growth.

Airspace capacity can be enhanced to accommodate this growth with the use of technology. Technological solutions in the form of air traffic flow management (ATFM) and slot management are being deployed to minimise delays. The airspace conditions are being managed by a slot mechanism, wherein the flight time (plus padding time) is being utilised to work on the slots. New technology models can be adopted to explore the possibility of controlling ATFM daily distribution in a way that there are minimum disruptions for subsequent flights. ATM and ATFM automation is a solution that is rapidly being adopted across the aviation industry sector, improving productivity and effectiveness. These automation tools enable ATM services to manage various sectors without the ne­ed for sector-independent training. Their terminal/en route integration leverages airspace de­sign and automation to increase safety and efficiency while decreasing the controller workload.

Data link communication is being used for digital clearance. The voice communication frequencies used by flight crew are becoming inc­reasingly congested and will not be able to accommodate the projected increase in traffic. The use of controller pilot data link communications as part of departure clearance and to supplement some routine voice communications will help improve efficiency, capacity and safety.

Another technological solution being dep­loyed to ease traffic management is the Advan­ced Surface Movement Guidance and Control System (A-SMGCM). It is a system that provides routing, guidance and surveillance for the control of aircraft and vehicles in order to maintain the declared surface movement rate under all weather conditions within the airport. It imp­r­oves airport throughput while maintaining the required level of safety. In India, the currently deployed A-SMGCMs at major airports need to be upgraded.

Aircraft noise and its impact on local communities is also a major problem that needs attention. With the expected rise in aircraft numbers in the coming years, noise issues are bound to increase. While aircraft operating during the en route phase of a flight do not generally cause problems, those on ground or close to the ground pose a major challenge. Most airlines in India operate newer aircraft in their fle­et, with minimal noise and emissions. How­ever, further reductions can be realised through air traffic and piloting policies. Pre-flight ground holding can be facilitated through modernised communication technologies such as provision of flight flow information at the destination airport. Holding patterns, when alleviated, can he­lp reduce noise. Further, flexible use of air­sp­a­ce can provide access to greater airspace volum­es, which can improve flight by routing it th­rou­gh areas with reduced noise sensitivity. Effi­ci­ently designed standard instrument departures and standard instrument arrivals can help improve flight paths over noise-sensitive areas. Noise abatement departure procedures, continuous climb operations and continuous descent operations also help reduce noise in the vicinity of an aerodrome.

The total airspace controlled by India is around 2.8 million square nautical miles. Of this, over 60 per cent is oceanic. Airspace separation in oceanic and remote areas is a key challenge that needs to be tackled. Procedural separation efforts are safe, but inefficient. Sp­a­ce-based Automatic Dependent Surveillan­ce–Broadcast (ADS-B) has enabled a reduction in separation over other means of oceanic surveillance. Supporting technology needs to be included in ADS-B push-to-talk systems. Tac­ti­cal control would help produce separation, and improve airspace efficiency over oceanic areas.

There is a need to ensure data visibility across facility boundaries during strategic traffic management. Enabling and integrating te­chnologies such as time-based management, performance-based navigation and data communication will help enhance data exchange, thereby allowing automated monitoring for situational awareness and reduction of surveillance gaps due to continuous ADS-B coverage. Such data integration between facilities will help in central air traffic flow management in the en route segment.

In India, the construction of new airports and development of existing airports is being carried out at a steady pace. In the coming yea­rs, the entry of new players in the market is going to limit airspace. Decoupling airflows within metroplex airspace through airspace and procedure design, vertical guidance for all runways in all weather conditions, and use of mature te­chnologies to mitigate the need for tactical vectoring, will help in trajectory-based operations.

What lies ahead?

In order to achieve on-time operations, predictability and a low carbon footprint, future ATM systems must be managed as an integrated network that is harmonised and interoperable. Practices that can be implemented for better ATM include the “most capable best served” principle, trajectory-based operations, system-wide information management, flight and flow information for a collaborative environment, and the use of artificial intelligen­ce/ ma­chine learning (AI/ML) to optimise airspace. AI/ML are the keys to coping with the increasing complexity of airspace management. They will bring about a paradigm shift in ATM, supporting better prediction to aid flight planning, ATFM, safety assessment and conflict prediction. Going forward, new technologies will complement and enhance human ca­pa­bilities, reduce human involvement in repetitive or low-value tasks, and free up human controllers to manage more critical tasks in the airspace ecosystem.


Based on a presentation by Wing Commander (retired), Milind  Phatak, lead system engineer, air traffic management, Boeing India, at a recent
India Infrastructure conference