1996-2011: Reflections on aviation
Written by Nick McFarlane   
Tuesday, 20 December 2011

On 1st October it was Helios’ fifteenth birthday. It’s a big milestone for us and a chance to reflect on what has changed around us.

Back in 1996 things were very different. It was 5 years before 9/11, 6 before euro coins and notes started circulating and 7 before Concorde retired. In the UK, we were at the tail end of 18 years of conservative government. In Europe, we didn’t have the treaty of Amsterdam (1997), let alone the treaties of Nice (2001) or Lisbon (2009) which developed the principles and powers of the European Union.

In aviation, aircraft technology has advanced considerably. Aircraft – like the 787 Dreamliner launched in 2007 – are lighter, quieter and more fuel efficient, with impressive innovations in avionics and cockpit interfaces. The introduction of TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) has added an important safety net to aviation. Massive structural changes are also underway. In Air Traffic Management we have seen the introduction of the Single European Sky legislation and the SESAR R&D programme, both of which aim to reduce fragmentation, improve efficiency and increase capacity.

There have been some great developments in ATM technical and operational “infrastructure”, such as the introduction of Mode S (enabling TCAS), Reduced Vertical Separation Minima (RVSM), datalink, satellite navigation, 8.33 kHz channel spacing, the Pan-European Communications Network Service (PENS) and the European Aeronautical Database (EAD). These have considerably improved capacity, efficiency, safety and cost-effectiveness.

Yet despite these changes, the fundamental process of ATM has stayed remarkably constant – relying on monitoring and instructions from air traffic controllers. Of course, this could all change with the introduction of much discussed technologies like “4D trajectories” which aim to increase the overall predictability of traffic and allow greater automation.

More immediate change is already happening in the use of Remote Towers and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). These are becoming more widespread and prompting some radical changes to working practices. Nevertheless, I wonder if the greatest challenges are to be found in other areas. There is enormous pressure on Air Navigation Service Providers to reduce fragmentation, cut costs and improve performance – all changes that are as much operational and institutional as technical.

So, as we ponder the short-term uncertainty of government debt problems and global recessions, it is clear that the world is going to look a very different place in another 15 years. Technological and operational innovations will continue, but the most profound changes will require consensus and action at a global level, as well as major investments in straightened times. I’m confident our industries, and the people within them, can rise to these challenges.


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nrmNick McFarlane
Managing Director
Tel: +44 1252 451 641
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