Up In The Air Blog
Restart & Resilience of Air Navigation Services post COVID-19
18 September 2020

A Better Future for ATM

Volume IV - In collaboration with:

NASA Aeronautics Research Institute

COVID-19 continues to have a huge impact on the aviation industry. The focus of the aviation industry thus far has been on surviving the pandemic. However, dire times call for thinking outside the box. During a time when we have lower than usual traffic, airlines and Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) can afford to take a step back to look at airspace structure and models of Air Navigation Service (ANS) provision.

Generally, technological change in Air Traffic Management (ATM) develops at a slow pace, due to the high safety requirements. Current air traffic management systems are based on state of the art that is at least 20 years old. Technologies such as digitization, big data, learning systems, internet of things, work-flow automation systems, service-oriented architectures, application protocol interface based extensible systems, and increasingly autonomous capabilities are slowly making their way into aviation. Much more could be done, however, to improve the efficiency and system optimization, bearing in mind the need for new technology to “pay for itself” in cost savings and new efficiencies. In addition to future technologies, transformation in ATM is expected to be brought about by “today” concepts like System Wide Information Management (SWIM) and Trajectory Based Operations (TBO).

Challenges facing ATM transformation are sometimes political. While aviation plays a critical role in enabling a country’s economy, decisions at the State level are sometimes driven by non-aviation factors. In some cases, there is truncated awareness and support of ATM requirements at the government level due to a misconception that ATM is an obscure and complex component of national infrastructure.

Pre-COVID challenges such as lack of coordination between States within a region and mixtures of capabilities became more visible bottlenecks during the pandemic. As aviation prepares for its restart and recovery from COVID-19 it is important to move away from insular thinking and adopt collective collaboration. Often, the management of air traffic flows focuses on FIR or State boundaries rather than on achieving overall efficiencies. The term “sovereignty” is misunderstood and used in a political context that defuses the potential gains from airspace delegation. National sovereignty cannot be delegated but the performance of functional responsibilities, such as the provision of air traffic services, can be delegated to a third party.

With the economic impact of COVID-19 on the aviation supply chain, it is now more critical to re-visit investment plans and assess whether the infrastructure supporting operations is still fit for purpose. During times of lower than usual traffic, airlines and ANSPs can afford to take a step back to look at airspace structure and models of ANS provision. Proactively agreeing on future concepts for a safe, efficient and cost-effective traffic management that are inclusive of the evolving needs of all airspace users will be critical for the sustainability of air transport. Technological solutions must be derived in collaboration among all stakeholders to ensure functional compatibility with airborne systems and cost-effective implementation.

Aviation stakeholders could build on emerging concepts to re-think that ATM system. Evolving concepts related to Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) explore the ability to provide services by multiple third parties using a de-centralized system. If every aircraft in the UTM construct can get the same information as the ATM system about surrounding traffic and constraints then their changes to operations could be planned without conflicts, executed safely, and shared with others to ensure continued situation awareness.  Such digitization and interconnectedness shift the operational paradigm from ‘managing by permission’ to ‘managing by exception’.

Insights & Considerations


  • The new normal during COVID-19 enables airlines and ANSPs to take a step back and assess if legacy systems, mindsets and regulatory frameworks are still fit for purpose.
  • Taking advantage of low traffic levels, some regions have initiated implementation of User Preferred Routes (UPRs). How can this be expanded and scaled for wider implementation of much needed operational improvements that will contribute to the economic and environmental sustainability of airline operators?
  • Collaboration across borders for the provision of ANS will fundamentally improve ATM performance. With the technologies and new concepts available today, States are able to employ a more proactive use of sovereignty over their airspace and move away from limiting managing traffic to national boundaries.
  • Airlines and ANSPs should explore together where and when dynamic airspace sectorization, airspace blocks, and upper airspace implementation is possible.
  • Adopting new technologies and embracing digitization in ATM would allow the pursuit of new service models. This could include unbundling some of the services ANSPs have traditionally provided.
  • The evolving plans for UTM and the emergence of UTM providers are expected to motivate transformation and innovation in ATM.
  • Several technological roadmaps and ATM system implementation plans have been developed. In the post-COVID environment, there is a need to re-revisit these roadmaps and assess if they effectively address the new and emerging requirements of all airspace users and fit with new business models.
  • When developing future plans, it is critical to identify; what infrastructure is needed, when is it needed, who will pay for it, and how will it be funded.

Get Involved

If you have any questions or would like to share your ideas with us, please send an email to infrastructure@2joygame.com

Next Publication

Stay tuned for our next Up in the Air publication which will focus on re-calibrating capacity in the new operating environment of COVID-19.

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