The CFMU – Valuable asset or problem for the future?

On 30/07/2009, in Viewpoint, by steve

Few people remember the days of horrendous delays in Europe caused by the explosive growth of demand in the latter part of the 70s and early 80s. States tried to cope with the problem as best they could but the individual efforts made things worse as often as they helped in resolving the logjam. Clearly, a region-wide solution was needed. This solution was the Central Flow Management Unit (CFMU), designed and operated by EUROCONTROL on behalf of the ECAC States and with the full blessing of ICAO.

Now, several decades later, the future of the CFMU as a concept and as an operating unit may hang in the balance.

From protecting sectors to ensuring flight efficiency

The first attempt at keeping the ATC system from falling apart under the relentless traffic peaks went under the tab “flow control”. Indeed, this was not much more than a crude quenching of traffic flows which did eliminate sector overloads but left hundreds of aircraft stranded on the ground, delays skyrocketing.


The commissioning of the CFMU brought not only a regionally centralised awareness of the overall situation but also a change in how sector overloads were prevented. The departure slots disbursed by the CFMU are based on several considerations, including alternative routings and aircraft operator preferences, justifying the claim that traffic flows are now being managed rather than just being constrained as in the days of basic flow control.

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Towards a net-centric system

On 30/07/2009, in Buzzwords explained, by steve

In the numerous descriptions of the future air traffic management system, the term “net-centric” appears over and over. What does net-centric really mean and how will such a system improve safety and flight efficiency?

Watch this space for a forthcoming post on this fascinating subject, the latest in our series “Buzzwords explained”.


Built-in obsolescence

On 29/07/2009, in The lighter side, by steve

I have often wondered what it must feel like to buy yourself an aircraft. Not a small propeller bird but something bigger, like a Gulfstream or a Boeing Business Jet. While thinking big, why not a 747? One of the attractive aspects of buying a big aircraft is the fact that they stay current for such a long time!

Buy a car and six months later its shape is an embarrassment. Buy the cutest cell phone and four weeks later your kids will laugh you out.

Our office in Brussels sees new technology pass through it like water in a stream. Some times a project needs new equipment, at others we see something that we are sure will be useful for something some time… More often than not these latter succumb to built in obsolescence and end up in our museum of must-have-gadgets.

Cell phones are no exception. MotorolaOur director of multimedia operations consumes the damn things at an enormous rate and each time he buys a new one, he is able to come with bullet-proof arguments in support for the change.

I tended to take a more laid back attitude towards cell phones. Having been there at their birth, I went through the various phases of evolution, none of which really caught my fancy.

My first cell phone was a bulky Motorola which I used until it literally fell to pieces. The world around me in the meantime watched cell phones shrink to the point where magnifying glasses were needed to make a call and human evolution was being pushed in the direction of spider leg thin fingers to work the minuscule buttons.

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C-17s on peace mission

On 28/07/2009, in Flashback, by steve

For those of us who worked at Ferihegy Airport in the 60s and 70s, military service was a simplified affair. Just one month of ground-pounder training (as opposed to the two years meted out on the less fortunate) where after we went back to our civilian  jobs of, in our case, controlling aircraft. The assumption was that if NATO came invading Lake Balaton and the Great Hungarian Plain, we would be doing the same job, albeit in uniform…

Training for the worst

As controllers, we were of course aware of the location of each military airport in Hungary, those used by the Russians as well as the few nominally under Hungarian control.

The airport of Papa in the South-West was one of the biggest of the military fields and when the flyboys of that place took to the air, civilian air traffic suffered mightily. Those Migs needed a big chunk of real estate to exercise their skills.


For us recurrent training took the form of a one day briefing given by a bored colonel. He did his best trying to explain why and how the Warsaw Pact armies might need to take Austria (he never used the name though, “enemy” countries were given colours) and what foolproof tactics we would be using but he was no fool. Facing that bunch of pilots and air traffic controllers, he could see the general sentiment that said: the Warsaw Pact armies would probably get bogged down at Shopping City Sud just outside Vienna…


Remembering Papa

A news item on  TV last night brought back these memories with a vengeance.

Luckily, we never had to test whether the theory about conquering Shopping City Sud was true, even if Hungarian is the second most spoken language after Austria’s native German at SCS to-day.

The airport of Papa still exists and has just embarked on a new renaissance. The Migs are long gone of course… But yesterday, three Boeing C-17s with Hungarian registration, have taken up residence there to support NATO’s peace missions. The Mayor of Papa was very pleased when he was interviewed on television and his smiles went out to the several hundred flying and support personnel of diverse nationalities who are taking up residence in the area.

I do not know whether our bored colonel is still alive… I hope he is. May be he will also stop at Papa to watch a few C-17s take off and land… then drive on to Shopping City Sud for a beer.


Trajectory based operations

On 26/07/2009, in Buzzwords explained, by steve

Trajectory Based Operations (TBO) is a key element of the operational concept of both SESAR and the US NextGen.

But what is TBO? It is definitely more than giving direct clearances and getting rid of route structures is an element, but not the essence, of Trajectory Based Operations.

We will be publishing a post on this exciting subject soon. In the meantime, why not write to us with your understanding of TBO, its perceived advantages or problems. We will strive to answer your issues as part of the forthcoming article.


Quote of July 2009

On 26/07/2009, in Quote of the month, by steve

In the kingdom of the birds, the parrot is the best talker – and the worst flier.

Orville Wright


Why we must learn to SWIM?

On 26/07/2009, in SWIM, by steve

The power of information is in sharing it…

A document discussing future air traffic management functions passed through my desk the other day. The time frame was 2020 and the context, one can safely assume, SESAR, the big European air traffic management development program.

Reading the document, I came upon several instances where the authors described how certain functions will need to be limited or might not even work since the system will not be aware of this or that piece of vital information.

There was also no mention of important, hitherto under-utilised, new sources of information, like the Airline Operations Centre (AOC). Can’t use that thing once the aircraft is airborne, was the reason given.

I am not saying the document was bad. It had all the right things and the right words in it. What it failed to do was show how to-day’s constraints arising from the dearth of information would become requirements to be satisfied by System Wide Information Management (SWIM).

A system built along the lines described in the document would have the same limitations built into it that make to-day’s set up struggle to keep up with demand.

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Same time, same place, same level… 1.

On 25/07/2009, in Same time, same place..., by steve

I dedicate this series of stories to NS, JL and FJ who will know exactly what I am talking about and to my wife, Margaret, who is too young to have been part of any of it…


The title of this series depicts a situation controllers were invented to prevent, that is, to have two or more aircraft at the same place, at the same time and at the same level…

Most of the time they do an admirable job of this and consequently the air traffic control system is one of the safest elements of flying to day.

Malev IL18 safety card

It takes a special breed of men and women to make a good air traffic controller and the constant faultless performance expected of them requires an almost superhuman effort on their part. New surveillance techniques, computers and the host of other electronic wizardry that constitutes their tools help a lot, but the series of decisions that will eventually resolve any given, complex traffic situation is theirs alone. Stress is a way of living for controllers and their divorce rate is way above the national average.

These stories are about air traffic controllers, but not the disciplined bunch sitting in operations rooms and control towers.  It is about the human beings who love their job but also find time for a good laugh, who know when the rules can be bent a little, but whose concern for safety couldn’t be higher even if they were themselves sitting on board the machines entrusted to their care.

Each of the following stories is true. Some come from personal experience; others have lived on as part of the general heritage of air traffic control, to be talked about on long, foggy nights. Of this latter, some of the events described could not happen again, as they belong to an age that disappeared along with the DC3. Of the rest, well, for a new controller, every joke is new…

So, tighten your seatbelts, tune your radio to clearance delivery and let’s go!

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Who moved my cheese?

On 24/07/2009, in Bookshelf, by steve

By Dr. Spencer Johnson
Publisher: Random House Group Ltd.

Let’s be frank. As pilots and air traffic controllers, the last thing we would think of reading is a book coming from management consultants. A book categorised as “Personal Development” might have a small chance but would probably still get hidden when missus was around…

However, “Who moved my cheese?” a thin volume of less than a hundred pages with lots of illustrations is something worth a second look… and a third and a fourth and finally to be read from cover to cover.

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Teach for the future

On 24/07/2009, in Battle stations, by krisztian

In every conflict, be it in business, world clashes, local disputes or the upbringing of our children, we have always said: “learn from the past.”

Learning from the past

For this reason even military academies study ancient wars and tactics used therein to teach their future military leaders. In my domain, security, we do the same. We base our training on the past, scenarios that we have seen, that our instructors have lived are replayed and countered in order to make us ‘ready’ for what awaits us.

This sounds logical; we can only learn from our mistakes and praise ourselves over our victories. And to a certain level this is true. We do need to learn from our mistakes and use the past to shape the present. However, it is exactly in this last sentence that we make the biggest mistake.

As we live in the present and head towards the future, the enemy of the present lives in the future, a step ahead, always.

Manhatten skyline

Look at 9/11. Aviation security has changed since those events, some might argue for the better, some might say for the worse, but is has changed. We have adapted our security measures to something that has happened in the past. We have made it virtually impossible for terrorist organizations to perpetrate such an act again. But the terrorists know this, and they will counter us using our biggest weakness, the fact that we live and train for the present.

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