Harmonization of Air Traffic Management through Sustainable Operations

  • 20 Mar 2024
  • Text by: Dr. Eva Maleviti and Dr. Jack Patel, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

The 77th IATA Annual General Meeting held at Boston in October 2021 (IATA, 2021) marked a watershed moment to facilitate the adoption of sustainable operations in the aviation industry. A key takeaway from this AGM was the approval of a resolution for the global air transport industry to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. This commitment aligns with the Paris Agreement goal for limiting global warming well below 2°C.

Operational improvements in air traffic management (ATM) may significantly reduce CO2 emissions through advancements in airspace design and the deployment of interoperable technologies. Their implementation must be accelerated to reduce the fragmentation of ATM systems. Symptoms of fragmentation include, but are not limited to, long waiting times for take-off, go-around operations due to airport congestion in taxiways, and delays in airline schedules leading to passenger dissatisfaction. Moreover, these are all factors that contribute to increased CO2 emissions per region as such factors interact to create a less sustainable model for the aviation industry (Maleviti, 2023).

Ms Eva Maleviti highlighting sustainable aviation across different aviation domains. Photo: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
Ms Eva Maleviti presenting on the role of aviation in addressing the 17 SDGs. Photo: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

Therefore, a comprehensive and holistic approach involving all stakeholders, is required to accelerate solutions that reduce polluting operations in the short term and enable an operationally efficient air traffic management system in the long term.

As air traffic returns to pre-COVID levels, efficiency improvements must be introduced and maintained. This will eliminate possible airspace constraints and support optimized flight planning for aircraft operators. The adoption of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, automation, more innovative data analytics, and space-based surveillance to generate intelligent flight planning are improving the efficiency of air traffic management while keeping sustainability in mind.

Furthermore, the ATM industry has implemented processes and procedures like performance-based navigation, accessible route airspace, collaborative decision-making, air traffic flow management, and continuous descent and climb to reduce emissions, fuel consumption, and noise effects (EASA, 2023). These schemes help airlines fly the most efficient and shortest routes at the optimum altitude and speed. They also offer smoother arrival and departure flight profiles at airports and reduced delays through more effective coordination between ATM operations, airports, and airlines. 

New York JFK Airport
A picture of the JFK Airport in New York. Photo: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

In the Air Traffic Control (ATC) system, sustainability involves using available operations, regulations, and resources in the most efficient way possible to reduce emissions from air operations and support and maintain human capital productivity. While the endeavour to incorporate innovative technological solutions into the ATM ecosystem remains the core driver of sustainable operations, more needs to be done to address the influences of the human element in the equation (Maleviti, 2023). 

Mr Jack Patel at Daytona Beach ERAU ATC facility. Photo: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
A flight over Daytona Beach in a Cessna 172. Photo: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

A sustainable system should use and improve existing resources and provide innovative, economically viable, and timely operations that balance the three pillars of sustainability: environment, society, and economy. In September 2022, the International Advisory Panel (IAP) on Sustainable Air Hub submitted a report (CAAS, 2022), detailing 15 key initiatives across three key aviation domains of airport, airline, and air traffic management that Singapore aims to adopt as pathways towards decarbonization in the local aviation sector. Regarding air traffic management, short-term (2022-2026) goals include: The implementation of advanced demand capacity balancing, enhanced performance-based navigation and the optimisation of gate-to-gate trajectory. Medium-Term (2027-2032) goals include the implementation of trajectory-based operations and free route airspace in collaboration with stakeholders and partner Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSP). CAAS has also incorporated recommendations in its ‘Sustainable Air Hub Blueprint’, which was released earlier in February 2024.

However, to achieve and meet the three pillars of sustainability in an ATC environment, it is crucial to build on the existing main principles of the sector, such as safety, human factors, information, technology, collaboration, communication, and continuity. A sustainable system only sometimes means an entirely new system, but in some cases it might simply be an ‘updated’ version of the existing one, with elevated consideration of the system’s values and resources.

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