07 Mar Ramping up airspace capacity – and quickly
It used to be that demand grew steadily toward maximum capacity, then airport infrastructure was expanded, and the cycle could continue. That cycle isn’t likely to play out so smoothly for Australia’s aviation industry this time around. As new airports and runways at Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth stimulate more air traffic demand, Australia’s biggest aviation challenge will shift to airspace capacity.
It's not just the airspace around airports that will become more congested
Why this time is different
Forecasts for the new Western Sydney Airport do not expect the airport to operate at maximum capacity in the first years of operation. Traditionally, this would be true, as an airport gradually develops its market. Recent examples in the Asia Pacific region tell a different story. For example, Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport opened in 2006 and reached maximum capacity in that same year. As strong aviation demand continues, it is likely to put upward pressure on our aviation infrastructure.
Even at conservative forecasts, peak-hour slots are likely to fill up quickly as airlines take advantage of opportunities to add service during peak times. The initial single runway operation at Western Sydney Airport may add 50 or more aircraft per hour to already busy airspace. Similar increases are forecast when new runways at Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth become operational from 2020.
Congested flight paths
It’s not just the airspace around airports that will become more congested. Many of Australia’s city pair flight routes are already crowded. Sydney to Melbourne is the third-busiest city pair in the world, with Sydney to Brisbane not far behind.
In the past, efficient airspace and flight path management has been maintained through relatively simple ‘tweaking’ to accommodate gradual increases in demand. During Australia’s natural resource boom of 2008-2013, the sudden surge in air traffic demand supporting mining activity caught the services side of the industry off-guard, causing serious airspace congestion. That imbalance is likely to happen again in the next few years.
Quantifying – and managing – airspace capacity
Australia’s capacity challenge, up until now, has typically been runway constraints. Tools introduced to manage this through ground delay programmes, such as Metron Harmony, will remain important for busy airports. Managing airspace congestion, however, will require different tools.
Billions of dollars are being invested in infrastructure projects specifically to enhance airport capacity. Artificially constraining their operations to help ease airspace congestion would defeat the purpose. Instead, the solution must be to maximise airspace capacity.
Quantifying airspace capacity presents complex challenges. Aircraft numbers, weather, route complexity, radio frequency saturation and ATC cognitive loading all form part of the capacity equation, so a robust method of measuring capacity is essential.
In practical terms, the measurement process should commence with analysis of ATC cognitive loading within the tactical, pre-tactical and strategic timeframes. Examining these areas will reveal when and where airspace congestion will occur. Visualising the benefits of better airspace capacity regulation can then provide a robust business case for implementing an efficient airspace capacity management capability.
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