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Modernizing Air Traffic in Europe

A threefold increase in air traffic capacity in European skies, management costs halved, safety improved tenfold, and the environmental impact of each flight cut by 10%: just some of the objectives of the European SESAR program, to which CNRS is actively participating.

With nearly 30,000 flights a day during peak travel periods and more than 10 million flights a year (set to increase to 17 million by 2020 and 20.4 million by 2030), European air traffic risks paralysis if its management and control are not rapidly modernized.
For this reason, in 2007 the European Commission launched the SESAR (Single European Sky Air traffic management and Research) program, the techno-logical side of the “Single European Sky” initiative, which aims to restructure air traffic management in Europe, currently split into 27 different national systems.1 “Air traffic control has evolved very little since communication by radio and radar became the norm,” explains Philippe Baptiste, one of the 12 members of the SESAR scientific committee and director of the LIX.2 “To a large extent, it is still fairly low-tech, with very little automation, and continues to rely on the individual capacity of controllers to manage ever increasing traffic levels.”
A member of the SESAR scientific committee and senior researcher at PREG,3 Alain Jeunemaître points out that “the economic losses linked to the system's lack of efficiency are estimated to be between €3-5 billion a year, one billion of which is due to system fragmentation. Air traffic control costs two times more in Europe than in the US, mainly due to this segmentation problem.”

Defining optimal flight paths
“At present, the flight paths set by air traffic controllers are far from optimal. They are overly dependent on the geographic segmentation of national management systems and military training spaces,” explains Patrick Ky, SESAR's executive director. “For instance, it is estimated that current flight paths deviate from optimal paths by 3 to 5%, which results in excessive fuel consumption, pollution, lost time, and wasted money.”
SESAR is therefore now working on optimizing flight paths. For any given flight, an optimal path will be jointly defined by controllers, airline companies, and other users of airspace (airports, business jets, private and military aviation, etc.). To do so, a number of technologies are being developed such as an intranet that links every player involved in air traffic control or direct data transfer between the ground and airplanes by digital link, to complement the current radio link. Other solutions involve the first satellite navigation tests using the European Galileo system planned in 2010-2011, controller and pilot assistance via new automatic functions, and new turbulence detection systems. Once fully developed, these technologies will first be deployed on the ground, then in airplanes by 2014.

Long term research
In parallel with the technological developments currently underway, SESAR's scientific committee is setting up academic research networks on various topics like modeling and optimization of air traffic, the controller/computer interface, and improving the system's economic performance.
In France, several CNRS laboratories are conducting research in these fields. PREG, for example, has been examining ways of restructuring European air traffic control to reduce its cost, while the LIX has been working on traffic modeling aspects. The modernization of European air traffic control is essential, since failures come at a high price, like the 2002 mid-air collision above Lake Constance in Switzerland which resulted in 71 fatalities.

Jean-Philippe Braly

Notes :

1. Its present budget stands at €2.1 billion, divided between the European Commission, Eurocontrol (European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation) and 15 industrial partners.
2. Laboratoire d'informatique de l'école polytechnique (CNRS / École Polytechnique).
3. Pôle de recherche en économie et gestion de l'école polytechnique (CNRS / École Polytechnique).

Contacts :

Patrick Ky,
SESAR Joint Undertaking, Bruxelles.
Philippe Baptiste,
LIX, Palaiseau.
Alain Jeunemaître,
PREG, Paris.


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