Looking beyond the industry for inspiration


How can long-established sectors like air transport prepare for change and adapt to a digital future?

The current pandemic has been a catalyst for change, spurring on a transformation that will see the world develop faster over the next decade than in the past 100 years. It will affect every industry and individual. So, what does this mean for aviation?

Over the past 12 months, air transport has faced one of its biggest tests, but with new technologies emerging and new airborne users on the horizon, aviation needs to be ready for a new reality. To help the industry prepare for the future that awaits, CANSO gathered hundreds of industry figureheads at the CANSO Global Leadership Summit 2021 in March and explored the concept of digitisation and the lessons learned in other industries. 

In the opening session, Futurist Gerd Leonhard reminded the aviation industry that digitisation is not a choice but a necessity.

“We are at the tipping point of exponential change,” he said. “Digital transformation is going on all around us – teaching, work, and shopping is all happening online. Anything that can be automated or digitised, will be.”

The CANSO Global Leadership Summit detailed this widespread acceptance of a new normal. Leonhard even suggested that only those sectors that are part of the sustainable, digital economy will survive into the future. As a service industry, he said, air traffic management (ATM) must move to the cloud, use data and be smart and connected, much as every other service industry is doing. This will create a new “meta-intelligence” in the industry.

But ATM must move quickly. And that will take high level collaboration. An air navigation service provider (ANSP) cannot digitise the entire ATM system through individual effort. The industry must not only think together and do together but also welcome outside influence and ideas.

That even means seeing disruptors not as competitors but as potential partners and collaborators. After all, new entrants see an opportunity in the market and an ANSP would do well to understand the nature of that opportunity.

Artist and Innovator, Daan Roosegaarde, underlined this point in his presentation. “There is no perfect world, and nobody knows what the future will look like,” he said. “But we know we can improve step by step. If we don’t invest in new ideas, it won’t go well. We have to try, we have to learn.”

Regional innovation

There are several initiatives already underway to digitise the skies and introduce novel ideas.

In Europe, experts now talk of the SESAR Joint Undertaking delivering a Digital European Sky rather than a Single European Sky, which is more of a political construct. For SESAR, the Digital European Sky will leverage the latest digital technologies “to transform Europe’s aviation infrastructure, enabling it to handle the future growth and diversity of air traffic safely and efficiently while minimising environmental impact”. For its part, CANSO is an ardent supporter of this initiative, and the efficiency benefits it could bring across the aviation industry.

The aim is to make the ATM system more modular and agile to deal with disruptions, traffic growth and the diversity of air vehicles. “To bring the maximum benefits, the digital transformation will be holistic and passenger-centric, covering air travel door-to-door and involving everyone that plays a role in that experience, from the airports, airlines and air navigation service providers, to the regulatory, standardisation and safety bodies,” states the organisation’s blueprint for the digital European sky.

SESAR lists several key areas:

•  Connected and automated ATM
•  Air-ground integration and autonomy
•  Capacity-on-demand and dynamic airspace
•  Virtualisation and cyber-secure date sharing
•  Artificial intelligence
•  U-space and urban air mobility
•  Civil- military interoperability and coordination

SESAR has released the latest draft of the Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda (SRIA) for the Digital European Sky. The SRIA will be used as the basis for a future research partnership known as SESAR 3, which has already been signed by nearly 50 aviation industry stakeholders.

In the US, there is ATCA’s (Air Traffic Control Association) Blue Skies initiative (BSI). This is an industry-government collaborative effort to modernise the US national airspace system. It promises to optimise resources for all ATM stakeholders and users; be economically sustainable and scalable; educate the aviation community, flying public and new users; and implement new entrant technology without sacrificing security and safety.

Achieving the vision of the Blue Skies Initiative will take collaboration and imagination, according to the BSI documentation. “The future NAS must be built to grow and improve over time, while reducing the risk of big and costly failures,” it states.

Blueprint for the future

Bringing the future into focus, CANSO has launched the Complete Air Traffic System Global Council, designed to bring together leaders from across the manned and unmanned aviation industries worldwide. The innovative forum will forge close ties with policy makers to help realise a global, digital vision in accelerated timescales. The first meeting of the council has already taken place, which CANSO’s Director General, Simon Hocquard, describes as “an important first step”.

He believes that a globally shared vision of what our future sky will look like is a critical starting point. “And that’s something I believe is missing today,” he continues. “Every key player in the airborne vehicle ecosystem has a completely different view of what the future should hold, and what technology is required to support it. What we rapidly need therefore is a shared vision for total traffic management that supports all types of airborne vehicles.”

Ian Painter, General Manager, Air Operations, Cirium, backed up this point at the CANSO Global Leadership Summit. For the first time, in 2020 there was significant difference between flight schedules and flights flown. In fact, Painter estimated the difference to be a massive 87%. That means a critical set of data for planning – flight schedules – became inherently unstable.

“We’re too reliant on the past to predict the future,” said Painter. “We have a fundamental hole in the way we manage and share data across aviation stakeholders.”

Painter noted that the majority of data is siloed away from the stakeholders that need it to plan future operations. A long-range air traffic flow management (ATFM), for example, is worthless without flight information from outside an ANSP’s own area of control. Data sets need to be brought together to fashion a true global picture, said Painter.

Talent and culture

There are other challenges in implementing a digital sky. Isabelle Mauro, Director, Head, Digital Communications Industry at the World Economic Forum, highlighted the main considerations, including changing the infrastructure, regulatory blocks and securing the right talent and culture.

Her presentation at the CANSO Global Leadership Summit expanded on these points.

The cost of changing infrastructure is enormous but must be viewed in a longer-term context. Mauro suggested that rather than trying to do everything on their own, ANSPs can collaborate to share innovation costs – the wheel does not need to be constantly reinvented.

Regulatory blocks will likewise take an industry effort to ensure authorities also embrace the digital transformation of the industry with appropriate legislation amendments where necessary.

Talent and culture are perhaps the most difficult challenges to pin down. Mauro said this is about “reskilling the workforce and attracting the right young talent that will think innovatively”. In time, that will change the organisational culture.

Ultimately, that is the crux of the drive to digital skies; a new mindset. More than digitising existing operations, the industry must rethink services entirely. Digital remote towers show the way forward. It is no longer necessary to be at an airport to provide services there – a radical thought when first introduced.

ANSPs need to maintain the flexibility and scalability they have embraced during the pandemic. It won’t be easy as resources are hard to come by, but as all speakers at CANSO’s Global Leadership Summit emphasised, digitisation and innovation are the keys to survival and eventual success.