Question 1: What challenges is the air traffic management (ATM) industry facing?
When talking to our customers, we consistently hear of the same significant challenges facing many UK air traffic management units. In many cases, the sector is experiencing considerable demand for specialist resources due to economic pressures during the COVID pandemic, which required a reduction of staff below what would previously have been considered reasonable staffing levels. An increase in recruitment further exacerbates this as part of the pandemic recovery, which leaves many smaller or medium air traffic operations losing critical employees to larger and better-paying units, with staff challenging to replace at speed. In addition, with the current economic environment also putting pressure on wage levels and further impacting retention, it is, as you can well imagine, quite challenging for many smaller units to deal with.
Another area is training. The usual solution for training issues involves bringing trainees on board and training your way out of the problem. However, training cycles can take two to three years, while validation success rates further impact the effectiveness and efficiency of training programmes.
Getting trainees through the system and fully validated is a long process, and current training systems are lengthy and traffic dependent.
The third area I would probably highlight is the continuing burden of regulatory standards. Regardless of the size of the ANSP [air navigation services provider], you are subject to the same standards and general regulatory requirements.
These demand various capabilities, no matter the size of your operation and local staff pool. This requires quite an extensive level of activity and resources to sustain and maintain. When dealing with a strained workforce, the breadth of requirements and the sheer quantity quickly become challenging.
Trying to deal with the training burden overlayed with the ongoing complexity of the regulatory requirements puts additional pressure on many units.
Question 2: What requests for support do you get and how do you provide solutions?
A trend we do see is that many airports with their own insourced ATC operations don’t want to outsource their provision fully. This is driven by a concern that handing control of a core function of their airport operation leaves them vulnerable. Giving up the licence by designating an external provider as ANSP feels like giving up control over the heartbeat of your airport, and that naturally is a big deal for many! But on the other hand, airports are constrained by how much capability and capacity they have in-house. The core of their business is to operate an airport, not run an ATC unit. So, that presents an opportunity for us – to provide flexible and innovative solutions to complement these in-house capabilities instead.
Consequently, we are often contacted about a specific problem that an ATC unit faces, but cannot resolve alone. For example, it might be that the customer is facing an issue obtaining validations for their operational staff or getting access to required qualifications or regular training.
Alternatively, it might be the condition of their assets that is of concern, both due to the capacity needed to replace them [the assets] and to manage the change and approval processes associated with a large-scale project of that nature, as well as the sizeable investment required for any ATS system procurement. In many cases, compiling a plan that considers the urgency of any one replacement helps identify priorities and supports the investment case in the first place. An asset replacement plan or even an ATS Roadmap is a task that can appear insurmountable, but helps unlock the urgently required investment.
When approached about a specific problem, the unit’s common challenge is their capability to respond to it or their lack of resources to deliver it in-house.
The first thing we do is create clarity about the actual problem, followed by a deep dive into the root cause once we have understood and agreed on the core of the problem with the customer. Then, instead of addressing the symptoms, we identify the constraints and define enablers to unlock the required enhancements. For example, rather than a generic summary suggesting that “my trainee ATCOs simply never validate”, as the result of in-depth analysis and discussion with the local teams, we may find that the blockers we need to tackle are the sub-optimal presentation of traffic for training to be successful, and the limited ability to release training staff for practical training.
This allows us to tailor our response to the problem and sustainably resolve the challenge for the long term.
We have developed services in all areas relating to successful ATM delivery, such as engineering, compliance, training, operational concepts and human factors, to name but a few, all of which we can combine in any way that suits the needs of a specific unit. That’s where our bespoke element comes in, and we prefer to provide solutions as services or subscriptions rather than in
a transactional manner. Our view is that this allows us to provide ongoing support, creating a lasting effect, and usually in a much more digestible manner, financially speaking, as an added benefit.
Question 3: The prospect of autonomous air traffic is now with us, but will this mean taking humans out of the loop when managing this new type of air traffic? Regarding safety, what are your views on this new technology?
The entire segment of potential new airspace users, generally referred to as ‘Future Air Mobility’ or ‘Future Air Traffic’, is gigantic in its forecasted industry scale and in terms of its potential – provided the environment allows this potential to materialise. Or perhaps more accurately: provided our industry manages to adapt to the new requirements and demands that this industry will put on us.
What starts as drones delivering critical items in a fraction of the time and at a lower cost than land-bound alternatives already has the potential to turn into an ecosystem of autonomous inspection and delivery vehicles, followed similarly by flexible and cost-effective air taxi offerings. Suppose any of the forecasts and predictions that suggest this new segment will grow into a billion-pound industry with hundreds of thousands of airspace users yearly in the UK alone prove accurate? In that case, the sheer size of this stakeholder group will drive the need for substantial change. As with conventional air traffic today, there is no chance that such a vast number of new, capable and demanding users can be managed manually and individually. Automation and a shift from positive control to traffic volume and flow management, as well as management of the utilised airspace volumes rather than individual users, will need to be the answer. This will likely require us humans to take a different role and allow these new machines to bring the capabilities they have at this early stage of development to the fore.
Commercial drones for professional use come with an impressive range of on-board functionality and incredible sophistication. But, if nothing else, this technology brings one of the biggest struggles in today’s air traffic management environment – a near-total level of potential predictability.
Ironically, uncertainty is only introduced by the human in the loop. Once the drone is given the ‘green light’ to commence its flight, these drones will follow with a high degree of reliability and 4D trajectory that even modern airliners currently never achieve. Therefore, we should explore how we can adapt and produce management solutions that build on this capability rather than fight it. With the inevitable impact and potential this ‘future air traffic’ technology has, we should seek to embrace it as a critical component of the ATM environment of the future.
Accepting this shift doesn’t alter the position that safety remains as fundamentally non-negotiable as it always has been and always will be in our industry. We operate in a highly regulated environment, and as much as the struggle between regulation and keeping up with technological and conceptual developments can be frustrating, it is what safeguards this position.
In essence, the inability of the regulator to approve an innovation or a new product until the required understanding has been established, the needed assurance has been provided and evidenced, and sometimes even the suitable regulation has been developed is one key mechanism that ensures that safety is maintained as a priority. Considering the capabilities of drones, future air taxi vehicles and the like, the key to safety is to assess, understand and adequately integrate these capabilities into the existing environment and to utilise the principles, methodologies and standards we have in place to assure ourselves of this.
Assessing the human factors in any system change is also critical. While the technology may be advanced, if the change is not implemented with a sympathetic view of how humans operate in the specific environment, the change will either fail or have a negative effect.
Question 4: ANSL has recently delivered various simulator-based training solutions, including your ATC operations. Simulator training is a standard training method in other areas of aviation; what is unique about these solutions in air traffic control?
First, simulators are well established in all training phases – in the cockpit, for example. However, simulators have historically been limited to initial training or incident management refresher training in air traffic management. The approach in ATC splits training into the initial training, which is classroom and simulator-based, and the practical On-the-Job-Training (OJT), designed to require the real-life operational environment to be successful literally. Indeed, in the tower environment, with its visual out-of-the-window element, the use of simulators for validation training was very limited in the experimental phase. If at all present, this sat outside the unit training plan. This meant it was seen as complementing, but not something that formally contributed to validating an ATCO.
Fundamentally, this is the most critical shift we successfully introduced, the Unit Validity Course (UVC) in Gatwick. The unit training course incorporated simulators throughout the practical training to optimise the level and complexity of traffic presented to a trainee at any point, complementing the practical training in the operational environment.
In addition to this general change in approach, the pandemic presented the challenge of continuing validation training without live traffic and through the post- pandemic recovery. Many airports and ATC operations have experienced spikes in demand whilst growing back to more substantial traffic levels. Peaks and troughs in air traffic levels are not ideal if you’re trying to provide a trainee with a consistent level of exposure to live traffic scenarios that help progress their training at the rate of speed that you want.
Because of the complete lack of live traffic during the pandemic, we were presented with the opportunity, in agreement with the regulator, to be open to the development of a synthetic programme that we could get fully approved and integral to the tower validation training approach – the first of its kind delivered in the UK. The synthetic environment utilised creates an assurance around the traffic volume one is dealing with. Furthermore, it can be programmed to present various scenarios to support the training progress. In addition, simulator training is far more flexible in its deployment, and we know that it’s successful because we have achieved several validations since the programme was introduced.
The other thing we can prove is that we can more proactively assess training performance and make much quicker decisions about how a trainee will perform. What that allows is earlier decisions concerning the potential to succeed, sparing both the trainee and the training team, as well as ultimately the business, weeks or months of training before leading to the need to abort activity in the end. As much as this is another cost factor, the increased confidence in a successful outcome helps enhance resource planning.
Finally, for the team involved in delivering this training, repeated practical and emotional investment in extended training programmes that ultimately fail is frustrating and draining, which can be avoided or reduced.
So, what is unique about the simulator- based training solutions we have deployed over the last months is that not only do they shift the way that air traffic management training is delivered towards a more effective and efficient delivery method, but they also bring together a flexible hybrid of the best of both worlds – the precise and effective simulated environment and the natural and ultimate operational environment – and the ability to switch between both within hours or days to optimise training progress.
This is possible thanks to the quality and standards our simulator equipment is designed to live up to under all circumstances. In collaboration with our partner UFA Inc., we have developed the simulated environments and associated exercises to meet regulated unit training requirements. Therefore, it is essential that the simulator that will be utilised can operate to the standard required. And whilst there are many different simulator providers, and all of them produce high-quality simulation environments, the specification of the simulator and the simulated environment by operational experts and potential users is as critical to ensuring that the training environment is an accurate representation of the airfield, which is the requirement for regulatory approval.
Question 5: ANSL has been in the ATM market since 2014, operating air traffic management services since 2016. In your view, has the industry changed in those years?
Three key characteristics define the air traffic management industry: we are safety focused; operating in a highly regulated environment; and we are a highly specialist industry. These three elements are vital to ensure a functioning, safe and orderly operating environment and provide all our customers and our customers’ customers the assurance that air travel is safe at all times. They do equally. However, all contribute to resistance to change. Add to that the global nature of our operations, with airlines operating in our airports worldwide, and you’ve got the recipe for a change management nightmare. Changes to equipment, technology and sometimes even procedures affect anyone using or potentially operating in the area from anywhere globally.
Thus, a change cannot simply and quickly be introduced in isolation.
Some examples of what one may call the most significant changes in airport ATM of the last decade or two: There is the introduction of satellite-based navigation. Formalising the use of Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) in aviation does not appear to be an unreasonable objective, considering how long GPS has been used in the military and all across our daily lives. And GNSS is being used in aviation, but still today, there are debates across all parts of the industry about the safety and reliability
of GNSS. Added to that is the need to consider all current and potential users, which drives the challenge that removing conventional navigational aids and procedures is unacceptable as some airspace users are not equipped with certified GNSS equipment.
As a result, we collectively, as an industry, still spend incredible amounts of time and money on the maintenance, replacement and renewal of conventional nav aids and procedures – before we all get into our cars and let the low-cost, unassured and unregulated satellite navigation on our mobile phones tell us the quickest route home.
As a second example, the transition to 8.33Khz channel spacing demonstrates the implications of our industry’s global nature. As we started to run out of frequencies, we needed to change how we allocate frequencies. Consequently, all radios used in aviation had to be changed or upgraded to enable this finer selection of frequencies. Works on the 8.33Khz channel spacing in Europe began in 1999, and it has taken more than 20 years to get the nearly full implementation. The reason is that every air-to-ground station operating in, or into Europe had to be upgraded, which is a phenomenal task that does take time.
And finally, Remote Tower Control (RTC). Indeed, RTC is a significant change that has undoubtedly happened in the industry. Well, the question is how fundamental the difference is. Of course, what it enables is excellent – the ATC service can now be provided remotely, unlocking flexibility and potential synergies. But if we look at the actual change to the service and the operation, the question stands: how fundamental is the difference? All remote or digital operations implemented to date are based on more or less unchanged procedures. The same phraseology is used to talk to aircraft, using the same communications technology and providing clearances based on the same rules. I am not suggesting that developing and implementing RTC solutions was not a massive task that requires large amounts of careful change management. But has RTC changed the ATM industry?
So, I would say that we work in a world where change takes time.
The ATM industry may not have changed since ANSL entered the market, but what we do change is what is available to the ATM market to choose from and work with.
Question 6: What alternatives are there to costly air traffic management solutions?
Air traffic management today is still costly, in our view, mainly due to its complexity and lack of flexibility or transparency.
The “we have always done it that way” approach we discussed earlier includes a tendency to stick to a very binary offering that sees the provision of ATM services either outsourced to a service provider or delivered in-house, but with minimal ability to choose a service in between those two extremes. The lack of flexibility can lead to unnecessary costs, and the inability to procure precisely the solution one requires can become costly due to excessive scope or insufficient or ineffective service. And additionally, the comparably small size of the ATM segment within the aviation industry further drives cost by limiting the variety of offerings available.
As a result, the potential to recover any investment into an ATM-specific solution for any supplier is limited, and the cost for the customer tends to be high.
Suppose all that is available is a solution designed around the needs of the big players in the market, then as a minor player? In that case, my only options are to over-pay or accept the cost of not participating in the benefits of such solutions. The Air Traffic Systems space is an excellent example of these principles. There is a significant challenge around asset investment and a lot of ageing equipment affecting airport air traffic operations across the UK. Whilst systems are continually being upgraded, the reality of this in a real-time setting is a like-for- like replacement.
Despite that, these are still expensive systems to implement, so whether one is looking for comms, navigation or surveillance systems, it will require significant investment to upgrade the system. At the very least, this leads to difficult prioritisation decisions that mean implementing something like an electronic flight strip system; if you don’t have the business case for it, it is not a viable option despite the inevitable operational benefits it would deliver.
We aim to create access to technology more cost-effectively. In collaboration with DataBeacon, we have developed the first low-complexity ATS system that we have just recently launched. It provides most of the capabilities of costly surveillance systems at a fraction of the cost. Designed purely with the customer in mind and closely aligned with the relevant regulation, our SimpliFID [Simplified Flight Information Display] showcases the possibility of developing affordable solutions if one focuses on the needs of airports other than the major players in the industry.
Tailoring the answer to what our customers need, rather than including anything a customer might need, allowed us to keep the solution flexible and cost-effective.
SimpliFID is a highly accessible, cost- effective alternative to implementing a surveillance data processing system and radar. Utilising Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast as a flexible and low-cost data source to populate a display, the system offers a user-friendly interface familiar to aerodrome flight information service officers (AFISO) and air traffic control officers (ATCO).
SimpliFID gives AFISOs and ATCOs increased visibility of their airspace to better inform its users. What sets this solution apart from others in the market is the combination of both the technical and regulatory assurance aspects, providing seamless integration into the operational environment.
Question 7: What opportunities do you feel are being overlooked by the industry? How do you envisage the evolution of ATC in the next 30 years?
What this industry generally does not do, which many others do, is take advantage of all the data and information we generate. Yet, from other sectors, we can see that channelling that data into insightful findings is decisive in determining pathways forward, considering what will become necessary for an airport to drive efficiencies in its operation, or evaluating and identifying what’s generating challenges for them.
We believe there is a real benefit to be gained by utilising business intelligence capabilities across all aspects of what we do, whether through the way that we monitor simulator training or through the way we look at performance data in terms of the air traffic service. So there is a real opportunity to utilise that to create business intelligence capabilities to enhance airports’ experience.
The reality is that providing air traffic will only get more expensive in its current, traditional form. It is a manpower-based service where resource costs are getting more costly and more constrained.
So the industry has to evolve, and we’ve talked about the evolution of training from a synthetic point of view, but it also has to grow in terms of the way the service is delivered. We’ve got to look at how we can become smarter at creating more efficient ways to deploy an air traffic service that deals with the cost impact and creates efficiencies.
Organisations need to be able to continue to operate with the level of control they desire. We recognise that carrying on with the solutions available today is a binary choice – either wholly insourced or wholly outsourced, and it’s one or the other.
Rightly, the regulation ensures there is a clear distinction around who owns the accountability of the safe provision of the service. However, in the future, we’ve got to look at how we can sit in a more flexible space, therefore, offering customers greater choice.
Over the next couple of decades, we believe there will be a substantial shift in the provision of air traffic services, combining local and remote service provision with accessible commercial models aligned to the volume and nature of the traffic.
Question 8: Aviation is an industry of enthusiasts. Would you call yourself an ‘aviation enthusiast’?
I have worked across various sectors, so I probably wouldn’t describe myself as an aviation enthusiast compared with many others in our industry.
However, I am passionate about our ability to bring positive change and doing that successfully in a highly regulated and safety-focused business.
In addition, I enjoy working in a small business where we can have a huge impact and create opportunities for people. We have a fantastic team at ANSL with a broad range of capabilities. I am excited about what we can collectively bring to the market – delivering real industry change, which ultimately drives benefits for those who work in aviation and consumers who use the services
Source: Air International