In 1946, Singapore was entrusted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to provide air traffic services for the Singapore Flight Information Region (FIR). Today, as a leading Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP), the Republic is responsible for the safe and efficient movement of over 670,000 flights in this area of air space every year. And the numbers are on an upward trend amidst a global aviation landscape that is also rising in complexity.

As our nation forges on, Bridging Skies takes this opportunity to reflect on Singapore’s journey to becoming a world-class ANSP.

This five-part Beyond Our Blue Skies series chronicles Singapore’s air traffic management (ATM) evolution through the eyes of the men and women who make it happen. From conversations with seasoned veterans to new officers – across air traffic control officers, engineers, trainers and support officers on the ground – we capture personal accounts and heart-warming anecdotes alongside the many important stories and milestones in Singapore’s ATM journey.

As their stories illuminate the philosophy behind Singapore’s investments in “man”, “machine” and “method”, you will also discover the passion, camaraderie and determination that have put Singapore in good stead to bring air traffic management to the next level – for the nation, the region and beyond.

Eyes on the Future

In this fourth story, we look at how CAAS is continuously exploring innovative ways to enhance ATM capacity, efficiency and safety. We speak with Edmund Heng, Deputy Director (Development Planning), Tan Yean Guan, Deputy Chief Air Traffic Control Officer (Planning) and Hermizan Jumari, Head (Air Traffic Management Operations Planning).

Growing Pains

Grappling with the challenge of accommodating more growth with finite and limited resources, Yean Guan, is constantly asked - Can you pack aircraft closer and safely? His answer is, “Yes, we can.” Which then begs the question - Before you reach that physical threshold, how can you optimise it further and how do you increase capacity along the way?

Yean Guan shares, “One such optimisation effort was the implementation of Simultaneous Independent Parallel Approaches (SIPA). Following successful trials in 2016, SIPA was implemented at Changi Airport in January 2017 to maximise the use of both runways for aircraft landings. With SIPA, arriving aircraft are “lined up” in the air into two separate independent queues, each with a dedicated set of controllers which enable aircraft to be packed closer safely, resulting in a higher landing rate at the runways and less time for aircraft to be held in the air while waiting to land.

Tan Yean Guan, Deputy Chief Air Traffic Control Officer (Planning)

Tan Yean Guan, Deputy Chief Air Traffic Control Officer (Planning)

In fact, far from merely directing when any aircraft can land or take off at an airport, as a leading ANSP, under today’s air traffic growth conditions, CAAS must optimise air space use and facilitate smooth air traffic flow.   

“In many mature air transport markets, we no longer have the luxury of simply adding new airports and slots to accommodate further traffic growth. Competition for air space is also accelerating, with new unmanned and commercial space-related services seeking to carve out their own niches for the expanding operations occurring and forecast in those areas. All of these factors point us to the realisation that to manage future growth we must become better at what we already do, and in the finite air space we already control,” noted Dr Liu Fang, Secretary General , ICAO at the recent ICAO Global ATFM Conference held in Singapore.

To minimise congestion in the air or on the ground, which may lead to flight delays and missed flights, as well as costly operational costs for airlines, CAAS not only counts on the invisible hands of its highly skilled people and cutting-edge technologies facilitating them in their work, it also actively collaborates with the airport community, as well as ANSPs in the region to adopt and develop innovative ATM solutions. Today, some of these solutions are driven by ICAO. One key example is Air Traffic Flow Management or ATFM, which holds tremendous promise for the future of safe and efficient ATM.  

Greater Efficiency through Integrating ATM and ATFM

ATFM is the regulation of air traffic to avoid exceeding airport or ATM capacity and to ensure that available capacity is used efficiently. ATFM uses updated flight information to predict traffic demand and adjusts the flow of flights into or out of airports to smoothen air traffic flows.

By better regulating air traffic flows, ATFM benefits both airlines and travellers and facilitates safer and more efficient flights overall. ATFM provides airlines with better predictability by having a designated time to depart from the airport.  This predictability allows for better planning and more efficient deployment of ground resources as well.

“ATFM is about balancing demand and capacity. Operationally, the capacity will vary depending on the situation: you have thunderstorms, aircraft encountering technical difficulties and then having to remain on the runway. These situations rob the available capacity, preventing other aircraft from landing and taking off from the runway,” explains Hermizan, whose role is to implement initiatives that help improve ATM operations.

Hermizan Jumari, Head (Air Traffic Management Operations Planning)

Hermizan Jumari, Head (Air Traffic Management Operations Planning)

ATM is Transboundary

In other parts of the world, a single entity typically provides ATFM services. For instance in Europe, ATFM is provided by EUROCONTROL in Brussels, managing air traffic movements in the whole continent. Similarly, one unit manages the whole of the US. The air space of the Asia Pacific Region, however, particularly that of South East Asia is diverse and characterised by a high volume of air traffic movements between major city pairs traversing several FIRs.

“The challenge for us in Singapore is that we are in a region with many individual countries with their own ANSPs, and the airport that we have manages predominantly international flights. So, without a regionally agreed process, it’s harder for us to tell an airport in another country, ‘hey don’t let your flights take off from there yet’ while we’re trying to clear traffic here,” explains Hermizan.

To work harmoniously with other ANSPs in the region, CAAS initiated the Distributed Multi-Nodal ATFM concept in 2012, which was adapted from the ATFM used in the US and Europe.

“It’s a sort of virtual ATFM centre whereby every ANSP runs its own ATFM services, but all are interconnected through information exchange, through the existing communication infrastructure or eventually a cloud. This allows us to transmit restrictions from one place to another for the aircraft to depart at a certain time, so it arrives where the demand is well-managed,” explains Hermizan.

Enabled in part by the Centre of Excellence for ATM Programme Office (CEPO) and developed in collaboration with the industry, with Airbus participating in the research and development, Distributed Multi-Nodal ATFM involves CAAS working with other ANSPs. Today, this concept enables CAAS to influence the departure times of flights bound for Singapore from more than 35 airports in the region so flights arriving are not delayed in the air, says Hermizan, adding, “We are the first in the region to do this with our partners.”

Implementing Distributed Multi-Nodal ATFM entailed not so much technology as “getting people to rethink how ATFM could be done without a single centralised entity”, says Yean Guan. “We also wanted to improve on the current system in Europe and US (where one group calls the shots) to adapt it to our region’s unique needs.”  With Distributed Multi-Nodal ATFM, CAAS uses a more collaborative approach, working and coordinating with different ATM entities, countries and airlines, he adds.

“ATM is transboundary, if everyone is on the same advanced level, everyone benefits,” Yean Guan added.

CAAS is currently working with its ASEAN partners to achieve harmonised ATM implementation in the region. Under the ASEAN master plan, there are a few key priorities – ATFM is one of them, as well as digitising communications between Area Control Centres (ACCs).

Facilitating Collaboration through Data-sharing

Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM) is another example of a major process improvement that CAAS has implemented to enhance ATM efficiency.

At Changi Airport, A-CDM enables airport partners such as airlines, ground handlers and air traffic control officers (ATCOs) to share operational information on airport and flight operations through the Airport Operations Centre System - a custom-designed software to facilitate collaboration across all key airport partners. Access to such information enables the different parties to plan operational activities more efficiently.

For example, with prediction of push-back readiness given by airlines and ground handlers, ATCOs are able to optimise the aircraft departure sequence and reduce take-off waiting time at the runway holding point.  Before A-CDM was implemented, airlines depart from the gates based on first-come-first-serve principle. Changi’s A-CDM helps optimise resources and leads to greater efficiency at the airport.

Currently the Distributed Multi-Nodal ATFM and A-CDM projects are starting to converge, in accordance with the original plan as intended.

“The ultimate aim of this convergence is to achieve a level of predictability for the airlines, airport operators, and air traffic controllers,” Hermizan explains. “Today’s  lack of predictability leads to inefficiencies as aircraft do not know when they can take off or land when there is a delay on the ground.”

Overall, Distributed Multi-Nodal ATFM and A-CDM reap benefits for all parties, such as the efficient use of infrastructure and resources, fuel savings for the airlines, reduced carbon footprint and enhanced experience for travellers.

Building on Past Experiences

The kind of collaborations CAAS proactively engages in to successfully implement initiatives such as Distributed Multi-Nodal ATFM and A-CDM are not new.  Reflecting on earlier instances of working with other regional ANSPs, Edmund cites the Bay of Bengal project that came in two parts as an example. “One was straightening of the air routes, done in 2002. In the past, the routes were limited and criss-crossed each other, causing congestion. The routes were straightened, and now they are unidirectional, one east bound and one west, like highways.” This improved safety, efficiency and capacity, and was only possible with the cooperation of other ANSPs who managed air traffic in the area.

Then, in 2006, when the instability in Afghanistan caused a lot of delays for airlines transiting through the region and affected Changi, Singapore became heavily involved in implementing ATFM over the Bay of Bengal and worked with Thailand’s ANSP, AEROTHAI, who was the custodian of the system called the Bay of Bengal Cooperative Air Traffic Flow Management System (BOBCAT), Edmund recalls. This led to fewer delays at Changi and through the Afghan air space, thereby improving air traffic flows all the way to Europe.

Edmund Heng, Deputy Director (Development Planning)

Edmund Heng, Deputy Director (Development Planning)

Again, when Singapore looked to increasing capacity for air traffic travelling from Changi to North and Northeast Asia, using the South China Sea route, CAAS undertook the South China Sea project, Edmund continues. “By working with Vietnam, China, Hong Kong and the Philippines to introduce improved processes, we introduced a 7-minute separation between planes instead of the previous 10 minutes. In 2010 we reduced it further to five minutes, without compromising safety.”  Building on these experiences and through new technology and concepts, greater enhancements are being made to the provision of air navigation services.

Towards Greener Skies

Besides considering safety, efficiency and capacity in its ATM planning, CAAS also keeps in view the aviation industry’s environmental responsibilities. Aware of the sector’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, Americans, Australians and New Zealanders signed an agreement on an Asia and Pacific Initiative to Reduce Emissions (ASPIRE) at the 2008 Singapore Airshow, Edmund reveals.

In 2010, CAAS joined ASPIRE, which entails collaborating and sharing best practices on how certain ATM initiatives can reduce fuel burn and carbon emissions. “We identified city pairs between ASPIRE partners…for the routes between these cities, we then introduced identified ATM initiatives for aircraft to adopt to reduce carbon emissions,” says Edmund. “This is aligned with ATM objectives in that we seek to optimise efficiency and reduce fuel burn,” Yean Guan adds.

From Hindsight to Foresight

As experienced ATCOs themselves, ATM planners such as Edmund, Hermizan and Yean Guan, chart the future of where Singapore wants to be in ATM. The next immediate focus for ATM at Changi is Runway 3 and T5 operations. Three-runway operations will be a new challenge for CAAS.

“We have to stay ahead to ensure sufficient capacity, and deliver our service efficiently. Safety is, of course, inherent in all we do,” explains Hermizan.

“The whole point of setting up that long-term view is to bring about changes by transforming the services to manage the increasing traffic. We have to modernise the ATM system, and it entails changes in processes as well, not just the technology” adds Yean Guan.

CAAS is increasingly tapping on data analytics to address this. Using fast-time simulations to simulate future scenarios to assess potential solutions, CAAS is making use of what it knows today to discover and test potential solutions for tomorrow.

“We move from having hindsight to achieving foresight,” says Yean Guan.

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In the next instalment of Beyond Our Blue Skies, join us as our international partners illuminate how Singapore’s transboundary collaborations have contributed to the advancement of ATM regionally and globally.