The Asia Pacific ATM White Paper: A manifesto for regional ATM?  


Sichuan is known as a prosperous agricultural province of China, but this has not always been so. The Chengdu plain in Sichuan used to be plagued with floods and droughts. More than 2000 years ago, Li Bing, a local official built a levee at Dujianyan and diverted some of the water from the Minjiang River to irrigate the Chengdu plain. It was a massive engineering feat that irrigated an area ten times the size of Singapore. This huge water network built with primitive tools transformed Chengdu into a “land of abundance” and is still being used today. 

What does a water irrigation network have to do with ATM?  Read on to find out. 

In The World Ahead 2024 in The Economist, Tom Standage says: “The world is changing at mind-boggling speed.”  Looking around the world of ATM, this is hardly the case. In the Asia Pacific, we are still grappling very much with the same issues we were dealing with one to two decades ago today. We know fragmentation is ATM’s biggest challenge and yet we struggle to progress. 

Fragmentation can be traced to the choice to do ATM along sovereign lines. In 1944, only slightly more than 50 States attended the Chicago Conference and signed the Chicago Convention. Today, ICAO has close to 200 Member States.  It is not difficult to understand why fragmentation is an issue.

Are sovereignty and ATM efficiency a false dichotomy? Increasingly, we can have our cake and eat it. Digitalisation and virtualisation have made the pooling of sovereignty easier. It can now be done transparently and seamlessly without the old policy angst concerning cross-border ATM. Virtual defragmentation is possible. 

Working as a region rather than as individual ANSPs can make the whole larger than the sum of its parts. This is the crux of regional ATM. To achieve this requires bold creativity in applying digital solutions and a vehicle to bring it all cogently together. We need more policy makers and ANSP management to be aware of the rich potential before us. This is the motivation behind a study leading to the Asia Pacific ATM White Paper.

This White Paper is an initiative by CANSO supported by Think Research on a pro-bono basis, together with participation from CANSO Asia Pacific members and ATM technology companies. The process, including a brain-storming retreat in Bali, is priceless. I do not intend to provide a condensed version of the Paper here. Suffice to say that we are on the verge of transformation. But it takes courage to do ATM differently. Whether a higher form of ATM in the region can be realised will depend on bold actions in three areas. 

ATM technology companies on the supply side play a critical role in technology deployment. They should not stay in the traditional comfort zone. Real technology leaders define the market and not just follow their customers. The industry needs to move a lot more from products to services, catering to a generation brought up with smart apps and easy usage. They must make the profound breakthrough simple for the users to adopt. 

Second, ATM operations are often constrained by a self-imagined straitjacket of sovereignty policy. We now have a key to untangle ourselves. We should explain to policymakers that an expansive conception of sovereignty is available.  Policy makers should not just see ATM as a technical matter for the specialists. Changes to address the root cause can only be made at the policy level.  Regular dialogues can shift ATM to a win-win regional orientation.

Lastly, we need an action-oriented movement led by a multilateral framework with a strong mandate for performance and accountability. Leadership from a high-level vantage point is necessary as ground-up initiatives can be constrained.  When I started out as an air force intercept controller, we only used analogue video blips without any automated tracks.  When I was asked whether automated tracks would be useful, I was foolish enough to say no! Our biggest threat is our autopilot mindset. 

Both water and airspace are gifts of nature. It was human ingenuity that reshaped the flow of living water and brought life to a barren land. It will be the same creativity that will connect airspace using digital ATM to produce a seamless sky.  They are both networks that can bring benefits to all. Just like the “land of abundance”, new thinking and collective actions in ATM can create a region of prosperity. 

Incidentally, the next CANSO Asia Pacific Conference will be held near Dujianyan. At Dujianyan, there is a calligraphy by Deng Xiaoping describing the achievement of the irrigation system: “Giving blessings to ten thousand generations”.  We too can do our part.

Read the Asia Pacific (APAC) ATM Modernisation white paper here

ATM Asia-Pacific