Most of the next generation Air Traffic Management (ATM) initiatives like Next Gen and SESAR are set to minimize delays and increase capacity both on the ground and in the airspace. One cornerstone of these projects is trajectory optimization. The gate-to-gate optimization concept where a flight is transported from end to end using state-of-the-art technology and much more direct routes.
The problem with this ideology is that a very large constraint already exists within the airspace. The presence of airways and waypoints not only limits opportunity for optimization, but also results in airspace saturation. Most of the airways are created specifically for a particular city-pair due to high demands, but 10 years later the airlines don’t fly that route anymore and the airways remain. Many such airways and waypoints exist in today’s aeronautical infrastructure that are rarely or never used.
This brings an interesting discussion forward. If there were no airways, would there be better scope for optimization. Yes. But it would be at a higher risk level. Hence, in low density airspace, where there are very few aircrafts flying per day, such a concept can be utilized to its potential. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has launched an initiative called iFLEX, which will enable aircraft to fly a more flexible trajectory from origin to destination. The optimization process begins at the Flight Planning phase, where the dispatcher identifies the optimum combination of airways, waypoints, significant points, VORs, etc taking advantage of the upper winds. Modern flight planning systems are very sophisticated and can calculate the time, fuel consumption, CO2 burn, payload impacts, overflight charges for a particular route on a particular day. No re-optimization is envisioned enroute and the ATC separation standards will remains the same.
Being a part of the iFLEX team at IATA, I must say this is a very compelling concept that could change the very nature of air transportation. Together with support from ICAO, Delta Airlines and Emirates Airlines, the agenda for 2011 includes conducting 3 workshops, demo flights and publication of the guidance material to implement flexible routings.
More information on iFLEX can be found here.