Written by: Andrew Burrage
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Flight of fancy, or aviation reality?

There was once a time when aviation was at the forefront of innovation but in today's high tech, data-centric, rapidly evolving world Air Traffic Management (ATM) is increasingly looking antiquated. In comparison to other industries ATM has been slow to change, let alone innovate. You could conclude that a radical new approach is needed for ATM; but what would this look like and are we able to make it a reality?

In our recent 'Innovation and Disruption Seminar' during Farnborough Airshow we endeavoured to answer this question, starting the day by posing a future vision of ATM (see graphic above) where traditional aviation and new airspace users and traffic management solutions merge to form a seamless, integrated European transport system.

We discussed how automation is on the rise across all industries, not just our own. Also, how new players, with big budgets and big ambitions want to make use of airspace and bring with them new aerial systems, new business models and new technology, and most importantly new demands on traffic management. But are we anywhere near this becoming a reality?

The ATM industry has achieved some great success, aviation is safer and more popular than it has ever been with fewer accidents and busier airspace than ever before, but its safety critical and highly regulated nature inevitably makes any radical change difficult.

The difference today, which gives me hope for the future, lies in the economics. In 2012 Air Navigation Services (ANS) costs in Europe totalled €9.5bn, a significant figure but not when compared to the predicted spend on drones of $100bn+ by 2020, 10 times the amount of the total ANS spend. This means that there is a market for change, and potentially a business case to support it. New entrants, with significant capital behind them, are trying to build exciting new services (see more examples in the infographic section of ON AIR) and driving the need for innovation.

At our seminar, we heard from ANSPs, airport operators and regulators, all demonstrating an appetite for innovation and evolution. That appetite has probably always existed amongst traditional stakeholders but hasn't actually created real change in ATM. The difference today is that there is external competitive pressure and new transport technology which wasn't there before. This time around, the ATM industry must adapt and deliver the change that it has long talked of in order to remain relevant, or risk becoming antiquated.

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