ATCO Virtual Mobility: A promising solution to the challenges of air traffic management (ATM) capacity in Europe
Air Traffic Management (ATM) capacity shortage is a major challenge in Europe that is caused by a number of factors such as technical system constraints, airspace structures, airspace reservations, and ATCO shortage. Although efforts have been made to improve technical systems and better coordinate airspace use, ATCO shortage remains a significant challenge. To modernise the European ATM system, it is crucial to address the human and organisational aspects.
Traditionally, an ATCO shortage is often caused by inaccurate long-term traffic forecasts that may fail due to changes in traffic patterns or airline strategies. Additionally, ANSPs are bound by performance regulation, which requires cost efficiency and prevents them from maintaining additional resources on payroll, including training additional ATCOs to create a buffer of capacity.
However, there are new ways of thinking that can help address this challenge. One such initiative is to consider better use of operational staff, including ATCOs. While physical ATCO mobility has been proposed in the past, the CANSO community is looking into virtual ATCO mobility, which involves virtualisation of airspace to transfer data where it can be utilised. This way, air traffic services can be provided remotely if additional operational resources are needed. In Europe, there are few such examples, but I will shortly give an example closer to my own ANSP.
To enable this new way of operation, we need to foster interoperability and an open system ATM architecture. Within the CANSO Europe community-led work, we have recognised that it is essential to capitalise on advances in information management, automated technology, digitisation, data-based services and connectivity in order to provide improved and safe services and increase productivity and growth. We also consider that artificial intelligence and machine learning will form a critical part of the systems of the future.
We also need new regulations that support decentralised management of airspace across borders while addressing liability, security, regulatory, political, and financial aspects. Regulations for ATCO licensing and training should aim for flexible operations not limited to small number of sector groups. System-based ratings should also be considered to enable new ways of operation to be implemented if feasible.
It is important to note that new regulations alone cannot solve the staff problem. ANSPs need to collaborate with Member States and NSAs to accept the new concept of ATCO virtual mobility.
ATCO virtual mobility is the ability for the ATCO to manage any airspace independently from their geographical location within certain defined parameters. It involves providing the ATCO with the necessary information to manage the airspace at their usual working position without having to change their physical location. However, physical ATCO mobility is still possible should they choose to move to a different location. In Fintraffic, together with Estonian Air Navigation Service provider EANS, we have created FINEST – the first virtual centre providing dynamic cross-border en-route services in Finland and Estonia. It is a first of its kind attempt in Europe to combine the airspaces of two countries, being a poster for implementation of the Pan-European initiative called Single and Digital European Sky (SES) – a joint venture aiming to introduce shared digital European airspace by 2025.
In conclusion, ATCO virtual mobility offers a promising solution to the air traffic management capacity shortage. To realise its full potential, collaboration among ANSPs, Member States, and NSAs is essential, along with the development of new regulations that enable flexible operations and decentralised management of airspace.