Reducing Impacts, Increasing Benefits: How ATM is working to improve aviation's environmental performance

By Luc Tytgat, Director Single Sky, EUROCONTROL
October 2012

Aviation is a key provider of social and economic benefits such as employment opportunities, economic growth, international trade and increased mobility. But, as with most major economic sectors, such benefits have to be balanced against their environmental impact. For aviation these impacts include annoyance from aircraft noise and reduced air quality around airports, and emissions of greenhouse gases, such as Carbon Dioxide (CO2), which contribute to global climate change.

The aviation industry has been proactively working to reduce these impacts and much progress has already been made. Market-based measures such as the European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme provide financial incentives to cut emissions, operational and airspace improvements have been made which reduce fuel burn and the impact of aircraft noise, and research is in progress to both improve technology to make aircraft cleaner and quieter and to develop more sustainable aircraft fuels. However, with the industry continually striving to lessen its impact even further, EUROCONTROL, the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation, is working to develop new and innovative ways to reduce the environmental impact of a vital component of the aviation sector, air traffic management.

Air traffic management (ATM) is the integrated management of air traffic and airspace; in other words, where, when and how aircraft fly. These are factors which can have a significant influence on aviation’s environmental impact. Historically, European air traffic management has been organised on a national basis with each country designating its own air navigation services provider (ANSP). However, the European vision is to have a Single European Sky, a seamless, centrally-managed European airspace without national boundaries. This will enable aircraft to fly shorter, more direct routes, thus cutting flight times, reducing delay and decreasing fuel use. This has the double benefit of reducing emissions of CO2 and lowering operating costs.

As an intermediate step towards this EUROCONTROL is providing support in the restructuring of Europe's airspace into Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs). Implementing FABs will allow for greater cross-border harmonistation thus already enabling more direct routes and shorter flight times with the attendant environmental benefits. For example, in 2011 the UK-Ireland FAB, the first European FAB to be operational, achieved fuel savings of 24,000 tonnes which in turn reduced emissions of carbon dioxide by 76,000 tonnes whilst cutting 17.8 million euros from fuel bills.

However, reducing CO2 is not ATM's only environmental goal. One key project which reduces both aircraft noise and climate change impacts is the implementation of continuous descent operations (CDO) at European Airports. CDO is an operational technique which aims to keep aircraft higher for longer before performing a smooth single-stage descent which avoids level flight as much as possible. Minimising level flight reduces engine thrust which both decreases fuel burn and diminishes noise impact for the communities being over-flown as the aircraft stays higher, and consequently is quieter, for longer.

EUROCONTROL is facilitating the introduction of CDO at an ever-growing number of European airports. Take-up rate has been so good that an initial target of having CDO available at 100 airports by 2013 has been raised to 200 airports by 2014. Facilitated by the introduction of new technologies from the Single European Sky ATM Research programme (SESAR) the aim is to eradicate stepped descents entirely, so that by 2020 CDOs will be available at virtually all European airports.

The implementation of CDOs requires the co-ordination of the operational stakeholders at an airport; the ANSP, the airport operator and, of course, the airlines which use the airport. This can be facilitated by initiatives such as Collaborative Environmental Management (CEM), a protocol developed by EUROCONTROL whereby stakeholders at an airport collaborate on projects such as the redesign of arrival and departure routes or the introduction of operational initiatives such as CDOs. Establishing such a dialogue facilitates joint decision-making and thus is key to the successful implementation of multi-actor environmental improvements and achieving sustainability targets. It is EUROCONTROL's objective to achieve widespread adoption of CEM at European airports by 2013. This is being progressed by its inclusion in the European work programmes of two major industry bodies, the Airport Council International (ACI) and the Civil Air Navigation Service Organisations (CANSO), as well as the work being done by the CEM Implementation Team set up by EUROCONTROL to support operational stakeholders.

However, aviation is a global industry and therefore addressing its environmental impacts requires global collaboration. One example already in progress is the project for Atlantic Interoperability to Reduce Emissions (AIRE), a transatlantic initiative which is being collaboratively managed with the Federal Aviation Administration, EUROCONTROL's counterpart ATM body in the USA. As the global aviation market expands further such collaborative projects will increasingly be required.

Moreover, ATM is just one component of the aviation sector and the continuous improvements to aviation's environmental performance which are being achieved require the co-ordination of all actors. Not only are ANSPs, airport operators and airlines increasingly working together to minimise the environmental impact of aircraft operations but, as can be seen from the other articles in this edition, valuable work to improve technological performance and develop sustainable alternative fuels is also going on, supported by the Clean Sky Joint Technology Initiative and European Commission research programme. It is thanks to this concerted effort from all sectors of the industry that aviation’s environmental performance continues to improve whilst still providing the social and economic benefits which society relies on.