Are we looking low enough?
All aviation activities depend on access to a finite national resource – airspace. This resource is a critical enabler for aviation growth, yet supply is becoming increasingly limited. In Europe last summer, for example, delays were at an unprecedented level and, given the anticipated demand*, only look set to increase without intervention – a point drawn sharply into focus at the opening workshop of the SJU's Airspace Architecture Study.
Over the years, different approaches have been applied to provide more airspace capacity, for example; more routes available from deployment of Area Navigation (RNAV), the introduction of Free Route Airspace, increased sector availability through Air Traffic Control (ATC) tools, Reduced Vertical Separation Minima (RVSM); 8.33, datalink etc. However, for the most part, these have focussed on the upper en-route airspace. Indeed, even the anticipated ideas in the SJU's Airspace Architecture Study are also likely to focus on airspace utilisation in the en-route environment.
Whilst there appears to be a concerted and unified effort to resolve problems in the en-route environment, is there a danger that lower airspace is getting left behind? There seems little point in generating additional en-route capacity if we simply transfer delays to aerodromes. Furthermore, the issues in lower airspace are arguably more complex and difficult to resolve. In particular there is increased societal pressures linked to noise and environmental impacts. For example, performance-based navigation concepts (and others) to support increased capacity at lower levels have concentrated noise patterns or required larger airspace volumes to comply with ICAO requirements often amplifying local resistance. Proximate airfields are also often competing with one another, which can make it hard for them to sit round the table together and come up with compromises that make the best use of the airspace. On top of all that we have the bow wave of new actors arriving, such as drones who will require access to airspace and will further complicate the airspace landscape.
There is no easy solution, but a more collaborative approach would certainly be a start – can we apply the lessons learned from en-route, to defragment and harmonise lower airspace? Given the variability of the capabilities of airspace users in lower airspace, and the numerous stakeholders, brokering their differing interests will not be straightforward, but maybe now is the time to start. It could lead to a reorganisation and reclassification of airspace with new technical solutions and service providers facilitating different access routes. It could also mean a change to the ways in which freedom of the skies can be exercised. Whatever the eventual outcome, if we don't start soon the European summer of delays will be the norm.
*European Aviation in 2040: Challenges of Growth