March 8, 2021

Innovation in Air Traffic Management – evolution or revolution?

I recently read a report entitled “Airport and Air Traffic Control System” produced by a panel of scientists, technology companies, controller and pilot representatives and airframe manufacturers. The report was drafted after investigations requested and endorsed by both House and Senate committees of the US Congress. These Committees were concerned about traffic growth and congestion, and the impact and cost this would have on the travelling public; as well as the feasibility and cost of proposed solutions.

From an airport capacity perspective, the report noted that new runways are an option, but this often encounters significant opposition from local residents. Instead, it suggests utilising technology to automatically meter traffic into and out of busy airspace, and enabling enhanced navigation techniques to create curved approaches and better utilise airspace.

The report acknowledges that “the FAA is planning a program of technological improvements intended to enable the National Airspace System to handle a higher volume of traffic with increased efficiency and safety.” These technological changes “will permit a level of automation in ATC that will greatly reduce the workforce” and include improved data link between aircraft and ground facilities” to enhance capacity.

Another key area of the report is the financial aspects; whether the benefits outweighed the costs; how to raise the necessary capital; how users should be charged etc.

You’re probably thinking that at least 45th US President Trump’s new Secretary for Transportation has the report she needs to get down to work on the infrastructure enhancements we heard so much about during the campaign last year. And because the issues sound so familiar, you’d be forgiven for thinking that.

However, like me, you may be surprised to discover that the report in question was delivered at the end of the initial year of 40th President Reagan’s first term in January 1982. The Office of Technology Assessment that drafted the report was abolished over twenty years ago, and you have to go digging around the archives cared for by Princeton University if you want to know more about the future views of our industry from a time when a mobile phone was still connected by a cable to something the size of a car battery, such as the Nokia Mobira from the same year.

Thirty-five years later, we still know that new runways are a challenge to deliver; traffic metering and curved approaches are potential terminal airspace solutions; increased use of decision support tools and controller-pilot data link will reduce workload, and delivery structures and funding remains a challenge. So nothing has really changed has it?

Well possibly on the solution side of the equation it is correct that little has changed, however, the challenge has grown considerably. Between the year the report was published and 2015 there was a 270% increase in passenger numbers according to the US DoT Bureau of Transportation Statistics; the FAA was handling just over 5 million flights a year in 1981, compared to 8.7 million in 2015. To be clear, I’m simply using the US as an example, as I believe the following question could be levelled globally.


Whether a designer, engineer, controller or pilot, safety has quite rightly been placed as the priority within our industry, which is to be applauded. However, there is always a risk that this gets used as an excuse not to innovate, or to implement new systems or ways of working in a timely manner.

From an ATM perspective, many countries have had (or in some cases still have) organisations with dual responsibility for service provision and safety oversight. This safety mandate can often generate an over-cautious approach throughout the organisation, stifling the drive for performance enhancement through embracing innovation – the equivalent of a cultural straight-jacket.

In July 2016, according to the Gartner Financial Services Innovation Survey, “the biggest threat to innovation is politics and culture which doesn’t accept failure or ideas from outside.” This is not something specific to that industry in my view.

Our safety focus understandably doesn’t allow us to accept failure operationally, however that should not discourage robust testing and experimentation in an R&D environment. Failures within such a controlled scenario are to be welcomed, as they result in further learning, development and improvement.

Commercial pressures, however, discourage transparency about how many failures were experienced along the road to delivering an innovative new tool or system, which in turn results in every ANSP commencing their own complex testing again before implementation – often slowing progress to a glacial pace. Technology should allow us to increase the pace of testing, saving time and money, and deliver benefits to users. However, because of where the safety responsibilities lie, ANSPs are never simply going to accept the word of a systems provider that new technology is fit for purpose and simply “plug and play.”

Not accepting ideas from outside is another issue for our industry, as we often claim to be “different” or “special” because of the complexity and safety responsibilities. So how do other industries deal with this testing/ confidence/ approval dilemma? The pharmaceutical industry, with a not dissimilar safety focus to aviation, spends about $140 billion a year in R&D and is responsible for the testing necessary to achieve regulatory approval before drugs are provided to consumers.

Even closer to home, airframe manufacturers go through all the necessary steps to achieve type certification for any new aircraft long before an airliner receives a water cannon salute at the end of its delivery flight.

So is that where approvals should lie with respect to ATM systems? Possibly, although OEMs will say that the pharmaceutical industry is worth about a trillion dollars, so there is the volume and value to justify taking on the regulatory burden. Similarly, for airframe manufacturers selling aircraft between $100 million – $300 million each, and with a market for around 700 airliners a year for each of the two major players, there is an obvious advantage in ensuring the cumbersome certification process is achieved as efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, many players have concluded that the global ATM market is simply not big enough for industry to invest significantly in innovation, and there are fewer providers in the market.

Progress in ATM is dependent upon ANSPs, who because of their regulatory heritage and responsibilities, are not incentivised to innovate; or on OEMs operating in a small market which similarly discourages investment in revolutionary new systems. So, are we stuck with this?

Technology has democratised many other markets, by allowing small startup companies to innovate and disrupt, and deliver significant benefits to users. We need to find a way to encourage greater collaboration between these innovators and the traditional providers and users and turn the phrase “yes, but they’re only a small company” from a negative to a positive; recognising that they are unencumbered by our history, and are agile, flexible, and hungry for growth. The platform and app concept would significantly disrupt the ATM space, by opening up the market to greater numbers of developers.

I don’t expect ANSPs to be any less rigorous in their testing of new apps before using them on their platforms; however, the testing and upgrade processes are likely to be a regular and short-term, to the point of almost continued evolution. Compared to the years-long processes required every 15 – 20 years for major equipment refresh programmes, requiring the acquisition and development of implementation expertise, this evolutionary approach would allow ANSPs to maintain a continuous capability in this key area within their organisation. Working with a range of app developers on short projects would mitigate the risk of one particular company ceasing to exist, and encourage greater competition and innovation.

If we don’t do something different, someone is going to stumble upon that Office of Technology Assessment report in 2030 and think it’s current…

(Originally published at in February 2017)

Tweets by @askapus

Find out how you could benefit from working with APUS - download our capability brochure