Air France captain in the cockpit of an aircraft.

Air traffic management: decarbonisation’s low-hanging fruit?


Of all the measures, proposals, technologies and prospective breakthroughs discussed at Airbus’ sustainability summit this month in Toulouse, improving air traffic management was roundly highlighted as the ripest and readiest immediate initiative to reduce carbon impact. With a fresh trial underway under the auspices of the European Union’s Single European Sky research programme, SESAR, now seems to be the time to take action on ATM.

Thierry Harquin, engineering senior manager in charge of ATM international cooperation at Airbus, explained at the event that “In a post-COVID world, we all realise that coming back to the normal situation will only be possible with a more sustainable aviation. ATM is one of the four pillars identified by all aviation stakeholders in the Destination 2050 roadmap to decarbonise aviation.”

“ATM optimisation could contribute to a reduction of 6-10% of CO2 emissions generated by aviation in Europe today,” Harquin suggested, and while Destination 2050 itself cites 6%, Harquin is not exaggerating to say “it is huge: it’s ambitious, but we think we can do it. But we cannot do it alone: we need partners, we need a lot of collaboration between all these partners — our customers the airlines, the air navigation service providers everywhere in Europe and elsewhere, the airports, the industry, and also research institutes.”

The Destination 2050 report splits this out further [PDF, p53] as advanced flight planning software contributing a savings of 2.6–3%, with improved flight management systems adding 3–4%.

The end goals include trajectory-based operations, which give predictability around where an aircraft is going, not just where it has been, which was the reality in the procedural and radar-based past.


End goals also include reducing the need to circle in holding patterns on arrival by instead slowing down during cruise (system-wide information management, SWIM, and collaborative decision-making, CDM), as well as allowing flight routing to be optimised for emissions (free route airspace, FRA, or Flexible Use of Airspace, FUA, sometimes Advanced Flexible Use of Airspace, AFUA).

“We have been working on a lot of projects in Europe in the frame of the SESAR, Single European Sky ATM Research, programme,” Harquin said. “This is a collaboration effort in which Airbus is leading some projects and also following some projects with all these actors to modernise the ATM of tomorrow.”

That ‘ATM of tomorrow’ was, thanks to an Airbus A320ceo trial on the flight bringing Airbus Summit participants down from Paris, the ‘ATM of this Tuesday’. (There are multiple TGV inOui full-service and Ouigo low-cost high-speed trains from Paris to Toulouse that take just 4h30.) Air France and the air navigation service providers conduced an inaugural demonstration trial under the auspices of SESAR’s wide-ranging ALBATROSS project.

“At the end of the flight we saved around five percent of CO2 emissions,” explained Laurent Lafontan, flight operations technical development senior vice president at Air France, who at the event praised the “collaboration between air navigation services provider with dynamic management of airspace”.

Lafontan highlighted single-engine taxiing, optimised vertical flight paths, the ability to choose the most efficient flight level during cruise, and continuous descent as the differences that added up to the five percent, noting that if the carrier had been able to conduct the flight “in the most efficient way, we would be able to reduce about 7-10% of CO2 emissions.”

10% is no small beans, and since so much of the benefit can be front-loaded in the relatively short term, improving air traffic management as soon as possible seems almost like a no-brainer.

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Featured image credited to Air France