By Manu Tandon
Flying remains a focal point in climate change discussions owing to its substantial impact on global warming. As we consider the environmental impact of air travel, it’s important to recognise that while flying only accounts for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, the non-CO2 impacts on climate bring that number up to 3.5%. If no action is taken, the IPCC estimates that aviation’s GHG contribution could rise between 5–15% of the total by 2050. The reason behind all of this is the anticipated growth of air travel. In just two decades, the skies will be dominated by the United States, China, and India, which will collectively account for a staggering 43% of the world’s 153.8 million aircraft movements at airports by 2041, according to ACI.
In the pursuit of a more sustainable future, it is crucial to explore innovative solutions that extend beyond traditional realms. As the world continues to grapple with environmental challenges, the aviation industry is stepping up to play its part. One significant avenue for progress lies in maximising airspace efficiency, which holds immense potential to drive the skies towards sustainability. Air navigation service providers (ANSPs) have a very important role in ensuring our glide path towards net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 is without any turbulence.
Airspace efficiency entails optimising the utilisation of airspace to make the most of modern aircraft capabilities and navigation technology. Doing so can reduce congestion and enhance operational efficiency. By adopting advanced technologies and implementing strategic measures, air traffic management systems can significantly reduce fuel consumption and emissions. Efficient routing and improved traffic flow management can minimise aircraft holding times, thus reducing their carbon footprint and improving overall sustainability.
In the UK, NATS (the UK’s ANSP) has delivered two large airspace change projects, including the introduction of Free Route Airspace across Scotland and northern England, in a move that will save the equivalent CO2 generated by 3,500 households every single year. Advanced technologies like Intelligent Approach (an arrivals spacing tool) were deployed at Heathrow in 2015 and have helped save 115,000 metric tons of CO2 a year and cut wind-related flow management delays by 62%. At Amsterdam Schiphol, the same technology is delivering up to 15% of additional runway capacity, helping to boost on-time performance and reduce airborne holding.
Effective airspace management can also address capacity challenges. Indian aviation is experiencing rapid growth, with passenger numbers doubling in the last decade. Projections of 520 million passengers by 2037 highlight a promising future, but understanding how to manage that demand is going to be vital. As air travel continues to grow, the demand for more flights puts strain on existing infrastructure. By streamlining airspace utilisation and leveraging technologies such as dynamic airspace configuration and advanced air traffic control systems, the industry can effectively manage increased air traffic without compromising safety or sustainability.
Furthermore, airspace efficiency fosters collaboration among stakeholders. Close cooperation between airlines, air traffic control providers, and aviation authorities is essential for implementing comprehensive airspace optimization strategies. By working together and sharing data, airspace users can collectively enhance efficiency, reduce delays, and mitigate environmental impact.
Currently, in India, there are around 700 commercial aircraft. Boeing this year projected the country will require around 2,210 new planes in the next two decades. Managing the tight balance between growth and sustainability is not a zero-sum game. India has set a target of achieving net zero by 2070 and has started taking credible initiatives in that direction. Research by SEO Economics suggests the additional cost of achieving net zero for the European Union will be €820 billion over the 32-year period (2018–2050). While developing countries will find it costly to immediately change the route plan by adopting Sustainable Aviation Fuels and hydrogen or electric aircraft, enhancements to air traffic management can be delivered now with today’s technology and at a fraction of the cost.
Driving the skies to sustainability through airspace efficiency is a shared responsibility. Governments, aviation industry leaders, and technology providers must join forces to develop innovative solutions and implement forward-thinking policies. Embracing sustainable practices and leveraging digitalisation can revolutionise air traffic management, leading to a greener and more sustainable aviation ecosystem. GAGAN (GPS-Aided GEO Augmented Navigation) is the classic example of well-orchestrated cooperation between various agencies. This project has made India proud by being the first of its type in Asia Pacific, wherein indigenously developed satellite-based augmentation systems provide navigation guidance to aircraft.
As we navigate the path towards a more sustainable future, airspace efficiency emerges as a key driver for positive change. By maximising operational efficiency, reducing emissions, and enhancing capacity management, we can ensure that the skies become a catalyst for environmental stewardship, propelling the aviation industry towards a greener and more sustainable tomorrow.
(The author is Mr. Manu Tandon, Business Leader in Aviation, Head, International Business Development (Technology), NATS, and the views expressed in this article are his own)