Are Air Traffic Controllers Passé?

On 19/07/2015, in ATC world, by steve

Well, not quite… not yet anyway. But it is a profession that can expect to face major changes in the coming decades.

disruptDuring the definition phase of SESAR I was the “owner”, on behalf of the airline group, of the concept of operations we were developing under the expert guidance of a colleague from KLM. The airlines were pushing hard to have the concept of free flight included. In case you are not familiar with this concept, let me just say that in free flight the responsibility for providing separation is transferred to the pilot. We do have something like this in traditional ATC also when, for instance, an aircraft is instructed to cross a level “maintaining own separation and VMC”. In free flight this is the normal operating mode and not only in VMC.

Controllers were long of two minds about free flight. Some saw this as a natural development, others as a threat to their jobs. Some controller unions embraced this second stance and in the SESAR work back then it were the latter we had to contend with.

At a certain point in time I was asked to make a presentation at a meeting attended also by controller representatives, explaining what the benefits of free flight were as seen by the airlines. It was interesting by the way that pilots and pilot unions were not generally opposed to free flight. Somehow they felt (I presume) that this was the kind of paradigm change that would help make their operations more efficient and hence help their companies survive.

Anyway, I made my presentation making extensive use of the excellent free-flight related material available from the Dutch NLR. Obviously, the whole thing was in the early research phase but the results were not only encouraging but totally convincing also. To us, dreamers anyway.

The controllers were not impressed, nor were we expecting them to be. One of them went so far as to actually inform me that what I was saying was nuts (he used a less polite word by the way).

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Automation – NOT an option, an inevitability

On 02/07/2015, in ATC world, by steve

For many years, theses on automation in both the air traffic management and the cockpit context used expressions like “human in the loop”, “human centered”, “human the final decision maker” and so on. Air traffic control and pilot unions liked these expressions because they saw in them an assurance that their jobs would be preserved also in the future. For automation experts the very same expressions sent a different message: you are only allowed to build systems that are limited to what the humans can do. This is a very serious limitation but luckily we are finally about to round a corner beyond which a completely new world beckons.

We have all heard and read about UAS, an acronym that stands for Unmanned Aerial Systems. Sometimes they are called RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems). Whatever the name, it refers to a new type of aircraft which does not have a pilot on board. Commonly referred to as “drones”, these aircraft fly with the “driver” on the ground, often thousands of miles away. They can accomplish many types of missions from seeking out and neutralizing bad guys through border patrol and checking oil pipelines. It is easy to see that integrating such operations with the civil air traffic management system is a task that needs some thought.

But the real disruptive development comes when UAS start to fly with no pilot involved at all. Autonomous UAS… Don’t think that these are small, innocent vehicles. If people like the box shifters have their way, we will have wide-body cargo planes flying as autonomous UAS in the 2030-2050 time frame. By aviation development standards, that is tomorrow, so it is probably a good idea to have a closer look to what such a disruptive technology really means for pilots and air traffic controllers.

What is driving these developments?

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Flashback – Part 1. Margaret

On 21/06/2015, in Flashback, by steve

BluSky Services is a successful consultancy that looks back on a history of more than a decade. It is customary to look back on the history of a company by listing the most important events that formed its shape over the years, to present old and not so old photos showing how the company premises and its products evolved. This flashback about BluSky will be unusual. We will look at the people who built the company and who continue to be the spirit of our undertaking. It is a family story as you will see. I have selected photos which capture moments from our lives, moments both special and run of the mill… but all of them significant in one way or the other. Welcome to our world!

At first there were just the three of us… then Daniel came along, although on this photo he is not yet part of the outside environment. In case you are wondering, that license plate is a French consular plate that I was using as an ICAO officer… except that it should have silver letters. I liked the orange letters (reserved for diplomatic plates) better and a few franks in the shop where they made the plates worked wonders to change the colors.



At a certain point in those old old times we had to move house. Something like this is best left to the experts but we did it ourselves. The result? We did look like a bunch of refugees…


We will come back to the story of the kids but first I would like you to meet Margaret. She is currently running a beauty salon in Brussels that is hugely popular and an important profit center in the company. She has always been one of the mainstays of our efforts to go forward while also keeping the family going… and 2extraordinary girl if ever there was one. She is beautiful, smart and kind. Being able to put up with me all these years is an achievement in itself. This photo was taken during a visit to St. Tropez. She was actually invited to visit one of the big yachts tied up in the port but she refused… Some time later we were on a boat but it was just a regular scheduled run to one of the island near the French coast. The engines sent a very nice buzz all through the body of the boat…









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FAA, EU Plan to Extend, Expand NextGen Pact

On 19/06/2015, in NextGen, by steve

The FAA and the European Union have announced their intention to extend and expand their cooperative work toward providing seamless air traffic services for aircraft flying between the United States and Europe.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and the EC’s Director General for Mobility and Transport, Mr. Joao Aguiar Machado, signed a Letter of Intent on air traffic management modernization at a  ceremony in Paris.

“I’m extremely proud of our partnership with the European Union,” said Administrator Michael Huerta. “Today’s signing validates the collaborative work that began three years ago and confirms our commitment to enhance our relationship even further.”

“Modernizing air traffic management is vital for the future of European aviation,” said EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc. “We need to invest in innovation in order to improve ATM performances. This means cheaper flights, increased safety, a lower impact on the environment, and better capacity to manage traffic. We share these objectives with the U.S. We are already doing a great job with the FAA by cooperating on SESAR and NextGen. Now that we are both heading towards deploying new systems, I fully support the idea that we should explore the possibility to extend this excellent cooperation to all phases of ATM modernization. That’s the change in culture that will take global ATM systems into the future, and will help cope with the expected traffic increase.”

The extension and expansion of the current agreement would help to ensure that passengers will enjoy safer, on-time flying over the Atlantic thanks to the benefits of NextGen and its European counterpart, the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR).

The Memorandum of Cooperation, which was originally signed in March 2011, would be expanded to enhance collaboration on the deployment and implementation of NextGen activities. It would also maintain ongoing research on the interoperability of avionics, communication protocols and procedures, as well as operational methods under NextGen and SESAR.

The Letter of Intent reflects the strong commitment from the United States and the European Union to harmonize air traffic technologies and procedures involving NextGen and SESAR. This supports the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Global Air Navigation Plan, which aims to harmonize air traffic systems throughout the world.


FAA Implements New Airport Safety Program

On 03/06/2015, in Life around runways, by steve

riaThe FAA has made significant progress in improving runway safety at U.S. airports over the past 15 years by working with other members of the aviation community on education, training, marking and lighting, standard runway safety areas, new technology and airfield improvements.

The FAA plans to build on that success by working with airport sponsors over the next 10-15 years to further reduce runway risks through risk-based decision-making. A new FAA national initiative known as the Runway Incursion Mitigation (RIM) program will identify airport risk factors that might contribute to a runway incursion and develop strategies to help airport sponsors mitigate those risks.

Runway incursions occur when an aircraft, vehicle, or person enters the protected area of an airport designated for aircraft landings and take offs. Risk factors that contribute to runway incursions may include unclear taxiway markings, airport signage, and more complex issues such as the runway or taxiway layout. Through RIM, the FAA will focus on reducing runway incursions by addressing risks at specific locations at the airport that have a history of runway incursions.

Risk-based decision-making builds on safety management principles by using a consistent approach to proactively address emerging safety risks. The FAA already has collected and reviewed data to identify specific airport areas with risk factors that could contribute to a runway incursion. The FAA has developed a preliminary inventory of airport locations where runway incursions have occurred. The FAA will work with the airport sponsors to develop strategies to mitigate runway incursions at these locations.

The FAA has kicked off the new initiative as it is wrapping up an extremely successful 15-year program to improve and standardize runway safety areas at the nation’s top commercial service airports.


Am I my Brother’s Keeper?

On 01/06/2015, in ATC world, by steve

Ever since air traffic control was invented in the previous century, the roles of pilot and air traffic controller had been clearly defined and (most of the time…) also adhered to. The pilot flies the aircraft and the controller issues clearances to ensure separation between aircraft. While this is a bit of an oversimplification, it correctly reflects the gist of the operation. In the past, neither the pilot nor the controller felt inclined to look into each other’s kitchen though no doubt they both wondered at times what the hell exactly the other was doing.

In the old days when traffic was low, pilots were able the form a pretty good mental picture of the traffic around them and it was not unheard of for a pilot to point out to the controller that a clearance he just received would create a conflict with another aircraft in the vicinity. However, as traffic grew both in sheer numbers and complexity, it was no longer evident that pilots would know what was going on around them. Then ACAS came along and pilots once again were able to figure out where most everybody else was.
The ability of the pilots to have traffic situational awareness via synthetic means like ACAS and ADS-B-in did spawn various ideas like free flight where separation would be provided by the pilots themselves without the benefit of an air traffic controller, but this is not what I am planning to write about here.

Air traffic control took a step forward with the introduction of Mode S radar which acts also as a data link and it is possible to send certain parameters from the aircraft into the ground system and eventually display some of this information to the controller.

Of particular interest has always been information on the level selected by the pilot in response to a clearance issues by the controller. Level busts happen everywhere but the problem was particularly acute in the London TMA and hence the Brits were pushing for this Mode S capability for a long time.

In case you are not familiar with how this works, here is a brief recap kindly provided to me by an expert. Although level-bust usually refers to a case where an aircraft goes right through the cleared level (whether climbing or descending), there is another, though possibly less serious, case to be considered, namely when the pilot fails to initiate the climb or descent after receiving a clearance.

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United Airlines Shows Pride by Speaking Out on Marriage Equality

On 29/05/2015, in Airline corner, by steve

rainbowUnited Airlines (NYSE: UAL) and its employees will commemorate LGBT Pride Month this June by marching in parades, sponsoring events and hosting celebrations at destinations across the airline’s global route network. But more than the festivities, the company is marking this historic Pride Month – one in which the U.S. Supreme Court may rule on the issue of same-sex marriage – by reaffirming its support for marriage equality.

United’s Chairman, President and CEO Jeff Smisek issued the following statement:

“United Airlines is proud to stand up for marriage equality in the United States. At United, we foster an inclusive and diverse culture, where every employee is accepted, valued, respected and treated fairly. While fully inclusive equal employment, workplace benefits and non-discrimination policies have been part of our company’s culture for many years, it is time for our nation to have a uniform marriage rule that gives equal dignity to same-sex couples. With this historic Supreme Court decision on the horizon, we encourage all of corporate America to join United Airlines on the right side of this debate.”

The airline in March also joined hundreds of other U.S. corporations by signing an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to support same-sex marriage.

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FAA-Industry Initiative Will Expand Small UAS Horizons

On 06/05/2015, in UAS, by steve

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has announced a partnership with industry to explore the next steps in unmanned aircraft operations beyond the type of operations the agency proposed in the draft small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) rule it published in February.

“Government has some the best and brightest minds in aviation, but we can’t operate in a vacuum,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “This is a big job, and we’ll get to our goal of safe, widespread UAS integration more quickly by leveraging the resources and expertise of the industry.”

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced the initiative today at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Unmanned Systems 2015 conference in Atlanta, Ga.

The FAA is working with industry partners on three focus areas, including:
• Visual line-of-sight operations in urban areas
CNN will look at how UAS might be safely used for newsgathering in populated areas.
• Extended visual line-of-sight operations in rural areas
This concept involves UAS flights outside the pilot’s direct vision. UAS manufacturer PrecisionHawk will explore how this might allow greater UAS use for crop monitoring in precision agriculture operations.
• Beyond visual line-of-sight in rural/isolated areas
BNSF Railroad will explore command-and-control challenges of using UAS to inspect rail system infrastructure.

“Even as we pursue our current rulemaking effort for small unmanned aircraft, we must continue to actively look for future ways to expand non-recreational UAS uses,” Huerta said. “This new initiative involving three leading U.S. companies will help us anticipate and address the needs of the evolving UAS industry.”

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The end of the association of european airlines?

On 06/05/2015, in Airline corner, by steve

aeaAEA’s and IATA’s European office are located in the same building in a fancy neighborhood of Brussels. The IATA office moved to the European capital from London several years ago to be nearer to the EU institutions and Eurocontrol and co-locating it with AEA looked like a good idea. It was. I was an Assistant Director with IATA at the time and one of the first things we all learned was how the tasks between IATA and AEA were distributed. After all, the membership of AEA and IATA was partially common and it was fair to surmise that both organizations would have the same position on the different issues airlines were struggling with.

This was not completely true, however. IATA was looking at the big picture with world-wide implications while AEA was responding primarily to the concerns of its European members. Every now and then we would come up against a conflict of interest. Especially when the issue was money to be spent by the airlines, like a mandate for some kind of new equipment, big, influential airlines with fewer flights in Europe would put up a spirited resistance, questioning the benefits which for them would always fall out to be less than for airlines flying mostly in Europe. Luckily for us, many of the proposed mandates had questionable benefits for any airline, so getting a common position was usually not too difficult.

Once we knew what to say and why, AEA would take upon themselves to speak on the political level while we at IATA would man the guns firing the technical underpinning supporting the political statements. Anyone who remembers the war around Mode S Enhanced Surveillance will know what I am talking about.

Of course IATA and AEA were only two, though possibly the most vocal, associations representing airlines in Europe. For the low-cost guys there is ELFAA (European Low Fare Airlines Association) while IACA (International Air Carrier Association) and ERA (European Regions Airline Association) brought to the table the interests of charter and regional operators respectively.

Obviously, one may question whether it was really necessary to have so many organizations but looking at their respective clienteles, it is easy to see that properly focusing on their diverse interests was only possible via an organization that had both the understanding and the time to deal with their specific problems.

Personally, I would divide the history of airline associations into three phases. There is to-day, to which we will come back in a moment, then there was the pre-ELFAA time and the post-ELFAA time.

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How do you regulate drones in the sky?

On 01/05/2015, in UAS, by steve

droneOne thing is certain. The seemingly amazing but actually quite simple technology that made drones, these small and not so small aircraft, accessible to almost anyone caught the regulators responsible for keeping our skies safe unawares. Once it was no longer possible to ignore the presence of the new kind of flying machine or threat to other machines, as you like, the response of the regulators was swift and predictably variable. In some countries they were banned outright, in others almost impossible-to-meet conditions were imposed and yet others tried to make them unattractive both to make and to operate. There are of course countries where they can operate freely while in others only a minimum of requirements need to be met.

The above less than logical or in fact less than effective measures reflected not the actual risk drones represented but the perception of the regulators concerned of the kind of risk a drone could possibly pose as well as the perceived discipline of would-be operators to keep their machines on a short leash.

The response in the US was at first leaning towards severe restrictions but this was later changed, under pressure from the industry concerned, to a more rational but still restrictive approach.

It now seems that Europe, and specifically the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is for once taking the lead to a sensible solution to this thorny problem. Their risk-based approach would ensure safety while also minimizing restrictive regulations on this fast growing industry.

Before dwelling into the details, let’s get a few things clarified. When one says “drone” people, even professionals, tend to imagine all kinds of things, from the tiny machines you by in supermarkets to the monsters used to smoke the bad guys. Actually, the very term drone is something that does not bear much of a relationship to the large variety of machines we are talking about. The current official terms are UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System and RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft System) used in the US and Europe respectively. One may argue that UAS is the better term, since it indicates the main characteristic of a drone, namely that there is no flight crew present on board when it is flying; RPAS puts the emphasis on the machine being piloted remotely but this would leave out drones that actually perform operations without being piloted from the ground. Funnily, in the original edition of the EASA Concept of Operations for Drones, the term drone is used not only in the title but throughout the text. In view of the less than crystal clear meaning of the abbreviations UAS and RPAS, drone is probably a good compromise.

So what risks do we need to consider?

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