Airspace Q4 2017: The freedom of flight

1 December 2017

Free route airspace is driving ATM towards a single european sky, promising significant benefits on the way.

Close to a decade on from its concept launch, free route airspace (FRA) is gaining the critical mass necessary to realise significant increases in capacity and important reductions in emissions.

FRA facilitates the more efficient use of a specified airspace by allowing users to fly their preferred trajectories between a defined entry and exit point.

EUROCONTROL estimates that 48 European air traffic control centres had partially or fully implemented free route airspace by the end of 2016. And by the end of 2019, it expects most European airspace to have implemented FRA, with all airspace over FL290 targeted to be covered by 1 January 2022.

Stepping stone

The North European Free Route Airspace Programme, NEFRA, was successfully completed in May 2017.

Launched in 2013, the NEFRA allows airspace users to fly the most efficient trajectories above FL285, irrespective of the borders of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Norway and Sweden.

A number of upgrades in ATM functionality has enabled crossborder FRA operations, including common flight planning procedures and collaborative training of air traffic controllers.

"The project has been a joint effort in support of a common goal," says Anders Andersson, LFV, and Chairman of the NEFRA Implementation Managers' Group.

"The key to our success has been a crystal-clear commitment to the project from all six air navigation service providers, states, and regulators, together with a well-balanced mixture of expertise among the local implementation managers driving the project."

Though it brings many benefits, the NEFRA is not an end itself but a stepping stone to an expanded FRA that will include the UK-Ireland Functional Airspace Block (FAB) and Iceland. In effect, this covers the nine-State Borealis Alliance.

In July 2016, the Alliance received €63.2 million under Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) funding. The aim is to introduce FRA across Northern Europe by 2021, a programme that is forecast to enable an annual reduction in flying distance of 4.7 million nautical miles and save airlines 26,000 tonnes of fuel.

Similar savings are on offer for other FRA developments; Austria will reduce cO2 emissions 15,000 tonnes annually as will Slovenia; Hungary will reach 16,000 tonnes in CO2 savings; and Germany will reach 30,000 tonnes.

Route Options

Meanwhile, at World ATM congress 2017, representatives from five ANSPs signed a memorandum of cooperation that will merge two free route airspaces, SAXFRA (Slovenian Austrian Cross-Border Free Route Airspace) and SEAFRA (South-East Axis Free Route Airspace – Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro).

This South East common Sky Initiative (SEcSI) will give airspace users critical options for routes between central and South Europe, including the flows to Turkey and further to the Middle East. SAXFRA alone offers estimated savings of 13 tonnes of fuel daily, helping to reduce cO2 emissions 43 tonnes per day.

FRA is due to be implemented in the whole of FAB Central Europe airspace (Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, croatia, czech Republic, Slovakia and Bosnia-Herzegovina) by 2019.

"If there is a common goal and willingness to cooperate, we can achieve great things," says Austro Control COO, Thomas Hoffmann. "The South East common Sky Initiative is a perfect example of that: five ANSPs working together towards improving the flow of air traffic across Europe."

"The SECSI Free Route airspace is a step forward after the two successfully completed FRA projects, SAXFRA and SEAFRA," agrees Croatia Control CEO Dragan Bilać. "I am sure that the five ANSPs will demonstrate excellent cooperation for the benefit of the airspace users to save thousands of tonnes of fuel per year.

"Moreover, the citizens of the six States will be exposed to significantly decreased emissions of CO2 and NOx. I believe the airspace users will recognise the benefits of FRA in this region as well as the environmental achievements."
The significance of the SECSI was also stressed by Joe Sultana, Director Network Manager, EUROCONTROL: "Following the successful implementation of the SAXFRA and SEAFRA initiatives, the South-East Europe common Sky Initiative is an excellent example of how cross-border FRA implementation progresses in Europe in complex airspace.

"The detailed and innovative work conducted by the five ANSPs in close coordination with the Network Manager makes this initiative a tangible example of how the European ATM network can be optimised. It opens significant opportunities for further airspace optimisation in central and South-East Europe with similar neighbouring initiatives."

Green headlines

EUROCONTROL anticipates substantial benefits accruing to all partners in the aviation value chain as a result of FRA.

Safety, as ever, is paramount. A fixed route network generates quite specific conflict zones for ANSPs. FRA, on the other hand, spreads potential conflicts, making it easier for controllers to handle as there is not such a concentration of potential conflicts to unravel.

FRA will also make it easier to accommodate the demands of future airspace users, such as drones, hypersonic transport, spaceplane operations to sub-orbit, "internet balloons" and more.

It is the environmental advantages that make the headlines though. Airspace users might reduce flight distances by as much as 7.5 million nautical miles annually, representing the equivalent of about 45,000 tonnes of fuel saved, or a reduction in cO2 emissions of 150,000 tonnes. That adds up to close to €40 million.

Moreover, FRA is an essential part of 4D profiles. By 2019/20, reports EUROcONTROL, additional savings of between 60,000-75,000 nautical miles a day can be expected, with the subsequent fuel, environmental and cost benefits.

To achieve these goals, EUROCONTROL as Network Manager is providing support to ANSPs in the form of airspace design, concept of operations, advice on aeronautical publication and the pre-validation of each new FRA environment to ensure that airspace users can plan flights in line with the concept.

EUROCONTROL is also providing appropriate solutions to further enhance operational performance and resolve any potential problems which may arise as a result of the implementation of free route airspace.



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