Business continuity in an international ATM environment

Written by: Ivan Baruta
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In a previous blog I discussed how much more interdependent the current ATM landscape is, compared to the recent past. Multinational initiatives, be it ICAO-led, Government driven, or even private partnerships, are now dictating the need to revisit one of the crucial, but often neglected parts of the ANS operations – business continuity.

When we hear "business continuity", many of us immediately think of operational contingency, e.g. what needs to be done if a part of an airspace is closed. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg. Operational contingency is a part of business continuity that deals with responses to external shocks or changes, but there are other parts, such as the ability to maintain financial and operational stability through planning, the ability to serve customers consistently, etc.

Focusing on operational contingency, each ANSP should develop comprehensive business continuity plans to help their management know how to respond in a period of crisis, to recover critical services and to return operations to as near normal as possible, as quickly as possible. Things like residual airspace capacity, financial impact and also brand image need to be considered for each type of potential disruption. An excellent source of guidance on contingency planning for ANSPs is EUROCONTROL's guidelines, whose five-step contingency process is shown in the figure below.

Figure 1: EUROCONTROL contingency process [1]

The top-down approach suggested by EUROCONTROL starts with defining a contingency planning policy – high-level contingency governance, a decision-making framework, and the relevant requirements. Following the policy principles, a set of contingency plans should be developed to demonstrate how the policy's requirements will be achieved, outlining the strategies and resources required to perform any documented action. Within the next step, achievement, the organisation should translate the contingency plans into reality. This should cover testing, exercising, maintaining and reviewing the various scenarios contained in the contingency plans, and raising awareness of contingency among the staff. We all hope that it would never have to come to the execution of any of these plans, but if it does, all the performed activities should be monitored and recorded for lessons learnt and next steps. Lastly, contingency planning promotion should ensure communication of the contingency culture to staff and partners, and dissemination of lessons learnt to enable continuous improvement of the whole process.

EUROCONTROL has developed a solid process and all ANSPs (not only those in Europe) should consider it when developing their own contingency processes. But what about the increasingly present multinational structures and cooperative initiatives? This is where the current business continuity guidelines fall short. When deciding on some sort of a multinational cooperation, such as in the case of European FABs, the African COMESA Upper Airspace, or the GCC Upper Airspace, the involved parties are mostly left to themselves to decide how to tackle business continuity and contingency measures in their operations. Here is where the other facets of business continuity also come in. With multinational bodies, with devolved or multi-centred governance and decision-making, it is difficult to develop and maintain coherent plans and strategies to ensure continuity, e.g. in recruitment, financial health, customer service, etc.

Except for the European FABs, where EUROCONTROL recommends either developing a common contingency plan or at least harmonising existing national plans, in most cases ANSPs are left to deal with ICAO's contingency requirements individually within their national airspace. This is clearly a suboptimal solution, because partner ANSPs have an opportunity to create a more comprehensive contingency plan that can ignore national boundaries and focus on the best continuity of service for the whole area covered for any of the perceived service disruptions. This requires significant political capital to be invested, but it is achievable: there are examples of cross-border contingency support where one State agrees with another to cover the ATM services for both States in the case of a disruption. Unfortunately, this is often done only on a bilateral level between two neighbouring States, and with a limited scope of what kind of support will be provided.

So, let's imagine that thanks to the comprehensive sharing of information and harmonisation of service, a set of States, or even the whole region, could cooperate in the case of disruption. In this 'imagined reality' a State would be capable of providing contingency ATM support not only to its neighbouring States, but also to any other participating State. Even better, imagine if more States got involved supporting disruption in one or more of their partner States, so that ATM service levels were maintained and capacity reductions were avoided? Of course, there will be lots of issues around cross-border contingency operations, such as liability, insurance, oversight of operations, and the lack of true interoperability between ATM systems. But despite those issues, this 'imagined reality' may be closer than you think! We are already seeing some initial activity in this direction in Europe, where States have established the European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell (EACCC). Elsewhere, initiatives such as the GCC Upper Airspace, are aiming towards sub-regional and regional business continuity solutions. I therefore think it entirely feasible that we will see the first regional ANS business continuity plans in place in the coming years, and not before time.

[1] EUROCONTROL Guidelines for Contingency Planning of Air Navigation Services (Including Service Continuity) (2. edition)

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