Mirror mirror on the wall… who is the best ANSP overall?

On 05/05/2016, in ATC world, by steve

Photo: HungaroControl

Photo: HungaroControl

A few months ago an email dropped into my inbox containing a survey initiated by the Hungarian air navigation service provider HungaroControl, seeking feedback on how they were perceived in the air traffic management community.

News from HungaroControl are always welcome here, after all most of what I learned in the world of aviation comes if not from HungaroControl, but the long line of predecessors, including Malev and the Air Traffic and Airport Administration (LRI) where I spent my early, and most enjoyable, years. So I checked out the survey with interest and was pleased with the way it was set up and the width of the questions being asked. My only negative feeling came from the fact that there was a question which appeared to be politically motivated and was trying to puzzle out how the image of Hungary as a country was reflecting on HungaroControl. You will be excused if you admit that you are not following events in Hungary too closely but it is still worthwhile to recall that being associated with some of the political directions there these days may not be something an ANSP would desire to happen. I did write an article here expressing my concerns about that question.

Anyway, a few days ago another email arrived from HC, this time containing the results of the survey. Of course I was very pleased with being given the privilege of getting a look at the results, especially with the knowledge that the survey results were meant primarily for internal consumption.

I will not go into the details, instead here is a summary of the results condensed into a few words. The famous “question” seems to have passed without noteworthy comments. In other words, the image of Hungary has little or no reflection on their ANSP. This is very good and the way it should be. Air traffic management and politics should not mix.

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An ANSP that Cares

On 20/11/2015, in ATC world, by steve

Hungary has always been at one of the busiest cross-roads of European traffic and time and again had to absorb even more flights when conflicts near-by and not so near-by resulted in a reshuffling of the routes taken by overflights of all kinds. The airport in Budapest has always been a lively place and its traffic is now recovering nicely following the crisis the industry went through in recent years. All in all, air traffic controllers in the country have always had a lot on their plates and have justifiably earned praise for their safe and efficient operation.

Photo HungaroControl

Photo HungaroControl

The Hungarian air navigation service provider, HungaroControl is well known in the industry and they count as one of the most innovative ANSPs… some might even say too innovative but that is pure jealousy in my view. The list of new products and services they have put out is impressive. ATCO training, one of the premier simulation and validation centers, a sequencing tool for arriving and departing traffic… not to mention the fact that Hungary has the first completely and truly free route airspace in Europe. CPDLC is in the pipeline and work is underway to introduce the remote tower concept, expected to actually replace the current brick and mortar facility at some point in the not too distant future. Clearly, this is an ANSP that is not afraid to push the boundaries.

It was with this background that their email requesting that we, industry folks answer a few questions from which HungaroControl wants to get an idea of their reputation in the world. I am not too keen on surveys in general (the Star Alliance is especially keen on asking for my opinion after each time I fly with them and this happens quite often) but a survey coming from an ANSP is probably a first and as such, it picked my interest.

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Take the survey!

On 21/08/2015, in ATC world, by steve

Dear Roger-Wilco Fans,

surveyThis does not happen often, but I am asking for your help. Current and former air traffic control professionals are invited to take a survey, which should take no longer than 10-15 minutes to complete.  Your feedback is important and will be used in the completion of the Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership Degree of our good friend Bob Mullennix.

Your help would be very much appreciated and it would be good if you could ask also your friends and colleagues to complete the survey and so help Bob.

The link to the survey is here.

Let’s show what Roger-Wilco can do!

We are required to provide an Informed Consent Form, which you can find here. This is a formality meant to help you decide whether or not to participate.



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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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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U.S. Transportation Secretary Foxx Announces Completion of Major NextGen Foundational Technology

On 30/04/2015, in ATC world, by steve

eramU.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced a significant NextGen milestone with the completion of En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM), a highly advanced computer system used by air traffic controllers to safely manage high-altitude traffic.

“Looking at the future of air travel, we know that there will be more planes in our skies and more people in our airports, and in order to meet this challenge we must integrate cutting-edge technology into our aviation system,” said Secretary Foxx.  “ERAM is a major step forward in our relentless efforts to develop and implement NextGen.  With this new technology, passengers will be able to get to their destinations, faster, safer, and have a smoother ride – all while burning less fuel to get there.”

ERAM is the backbone of operations at 20 of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) en route air traffic control centers.  The system, a crucial foundation for NextGen, drives display screens used by air traffic controllers to safely manage and separate aircraft.

“ERAM gives us a big boost in technological horsepower over the system it replaces,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.  “This computer system enables each controller to handle more aircraft over a larger area, resulting in increased safety, capacity, and efficiency.”

The first ERAM system went online at Salt Lake City Center in March 2012.  The final installation was completed last month at New York Center. 

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Aircraft seats and overripe tomatoes

On 17/03/2015, in ATC world, by steve

Old hands out there will not find much news in this article, though if you have not yet happened on my rumblings about airline behavior, you may in fact find it interesting. In fact, I am aiming for the attention of the many young air traffic controllers and others who still come to work every day wondering whether airlines are actually sane and who also believe that their main (or possibly only…) business is to ensure safety.
I do not blame them for thinking that airlines are irrational and the fallacy of being the key to aviation safety is also something that can be forgiven. It is a matter of education and in that respect, there is a lot that is lacking in to-day’s system.

May be, just may be, after reading this their view of the world will be slightly different, closer to reality and perhaps even better suited to adopting to the larger world (as opposed to their control center) in which they operate.

Let’s get this safety issue out of the way. All of us, working in aviation, has an important role in maintaining the extremely high level of safety the travelling public has come to expect. We do this by following rules and regulations, using approved parts and materials and apply our skills when an unforeseen event comes our way. When Boeing builds an aircraft, they are creating a very expensive business tool using which an airline can in turn create shareholder value. The aircraft must be fuel efficient, environmentally friendly and of course safe to operate. In that order. I know that we all grew up with the motto: safety first, but this is a misleading thing to say. If an aircraft is supremely safe but has lousy fuel economics, nobody will buy it. In other words, the aircraft must do its work supremely well and must do it safely.

The same is true of air traffic control. Although ICAO still puts the word “safety” as the first in the set of tasks of air traffic controllers (maintain a safe and efficient flow of traffic…) in to-day’s environment it means that the controller must do everything to ensure efficient operation of the airspace users and must do it in a way that is safe. The pre-determined procedures, airspace structures and what have you are designed to make this possible. The key to safety is in the system, not the controller. Use the system right and it will be safe… Please do not misunderstand what I am saying. It is not that I am trying to degrade the value of what controllers do. On the contrary. But if we are not careful, the “safety argument” can quickly become a block to progress and we end up with a system that is supremely safe but everyone forced to use it goes bankrupt. Ok, OK, this is a slight exaggeration but you get my drift.

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Between a rock and a very hard place – where is air traffic management going?

On 12/02/2015, in ATC world, by steve

automatedHungary’s decision to get rid of all fixed routes in the Budapest FIR and so become the first place in Europe with true free-route operations signifies something that few people appreciate for the huge impact it will have once others also follow suit. The ability to fly any track in the en-route phase that is the shortest distance between the departure and destination aerodromes will save the airspace users billions and is something the airspace users have been asking for, for decades. I am sure many a retired air traffic controller will now scratch their heads and wonder: how are they going to manage all those aircraft without the routes acting as a reference for planning.

The answer of course is TBO, or trajectory based operations, where the controller is looking at the trajectories (eventually end to end) rather than individual aircraft and 20 minutes into the future… Of course there are only so many aircraft a controller can handle at the same time and a similar limit to how many controllers you can assign to work in a given volume of airspace.

If growing demand is to be accommodated, automating some tasks becomes inevitable.

Make no mistake, the tools and procedures currently being fielded in leaps and bounds by NextGen in the US and Sesar in Europe are little more than baby steps towards what we will need in the future.

One of the big problems with current automation concepts is that we look at the total ATM operation and then automate those elements which can be automated relatively easily and which is acceptable to the human controller. But the basic paradigms of managing traffic and providing separation hardly change at all. This approach will quickly lead to a wall which we cannot go around or jump over because of the legacy relationship between controller and automation. The current concepts are all limited by the requirement for the human to be able to take over if the system fails.

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Tiny airspace, huge step forward

On 10/02/2015, in ATC world, by steve

HungaroControl is first in Europe to introduce the most effective version of Free Route operations. HUFRA can save airlines 3 million dollars in fuel costs per year.

Since 5 February 2015, HungaroControl is the first ANSP in Europe to have abolished the entire fixed route network in the Budapest FIR, thus enabling aircraft to use the airspace freely, without any restrictions. The significance of the new traffic management concept (Hungarian Free Route Airspace, HUFRA) is that aircraft can take the shortest possible flight path between the entry and exit points in Hungary’s airspace. According to experts, this solution suggests potential yearly savings of 1.5 million kilometres by aircraft flying over Hungary. As a result, airlines may save nearly $3 million worth of fuel per year, which may also lead to a reduction of CO2 emissions by more than 16 million kilograms.

Pursuant to Regulation No. 716/2014 of the European Commission it will be mandatory for air navigation organizations to introduce Free Route airspace, above 9000 meters across the whole of Europe by 1 January 2022. The Hungarian air navigation service provider HungaroControl has met these provisions well before the deadline and implemented Free Route Airspace without any time or space limitations, so that aircraft can make the fullest use of this service in the Hungarian airspace.


With the application of HUFRA, airplanes can cover the distance between their entry and exits points in the Hungarian airspace flying the shortest possible track, without inserting any unnecessary navigation points. This way airlines can plan and implement their flights in the Hungarian airspace in the most economical and environmentally friendly way. Thanks to this concept, the routes of flights through Hungary may be reduced by almost 1.5 million kilometers a year, with the fuel saved this way an airplane could fly around the Earth as many as thirty times.

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