SESAR: A view from the cockpit

Every day more than 26,000 scheduled flights take off and land in Europe. Behind the scenes of these numerous take-offs and landings, air traffic controllers coordinate, communicate and interact with the pilots that ensure safe operations with (hopefully) minimal delays. This ATM system and its specificities for communication and exchange of information – while having been efficient in the past – is now lagging behind the technological developments and innovations in aviation.

SESAR: A view from the cockpitWithin a few years’ time, a European pilot on a scheduled flight will program into the flight management system (FMS) a destination and arrival time. Dispatchers will have identified the optimum flight path, using continuous climb and descent approaches, the most economic altitude and speed. Data will be exchanged directly between the airborne and ground systems, giving better information and guidance for dealing with uncertain situations. This future scenario reflects the current SESAR objectives. The Programme, no doubt, will transform Europe’s airspace and the way it operates, ultimately changing the roles and responsibilities of all front-end users.

This transformation, and the related transition, cannot happen without the active involvement of pilots, air traffic controllers and engineers in the development of new systems, providing their 'niche' operational expertise vis-à-vis new technologies and equipment. European pilots, as an essential stakeholder, have enthusiastically embarked on this ambitious project to improve and develop new ATM concepts and procedures in order to shape a more efficient and safer European sky.

Since the early start of the SESAR Definition Phase (2006-2008), the European Cockpit Association (ECA), representing the pilots’ community at the EU level, has been closely involved in the SESAR Programme. Created in 1991, ECA is the representative body of European pilots and the European regional body of International Federation of Airline Pilots' Associations (IFALPA). ECA represents over 38,000 European pilots from National Pilot Associations in 37 European states. ECA has long established itself as the active voice of pilots speaking with the European Institutions regulating European air transport, such as the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, as well as EUROCONTROL and the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC). Becoming a key stakeholder in the SESAR Joint Undertaking, in cooperation with other industry representatives, government and aviation stakeholders, has been a further way to express the pilots’ determination for improving safety.

Pilots have actively contributed to the development of the new European ATM system since 2008 and will continue to do so when the Deployment phase of SESAR gradually starts taking effect. A team of 12 experts on behalf of all European pilots have contributed to projects dealing with airborne and ground safety nets, which alert controllers and pilots to an increased risk to flight safety; remote and virtual tower; airport safety support tools; airborne collision avoidance systems or weather forecast (MET), to name a few.

ECA’s experts have also participated in a number of validation exercises, organised on a yearly basis by the SESAR Joint Undertaking, to measure the maturity of some key concepts and the robustness of the related breakthrough technologies. There is no better way to assess the feasibility, usability and acceptability of advanced concepts and flight deck technologies than bringing in the perspective of line pilots. Sharing experience of daily operations, about what works and what does not work in reality is one of the biggest added-values that front-line operators can bring into such an ambitious R&D programme.

Yet, the complexity of the new ATM system and the related change in the role of pilots should not be underestimated, especially as ATM safety levels need to be improved at the same time. SESAR will bring a sweeping change to the way we fly in Europe. It will inherently affect the human performance requirements and it will both add new and redefine existing responsibilities of pilots.

Whereas today, pilots accept the flight plan submitted by their operator to the Network Manager (former CFMU amongst other functions), and rely on the possibility of making further adjustments during flight, tomorrow will bring a need to have better trajectory predictability. Although there will still be opportunities to adjust the trajectory during a flight due to unpredicted conditions, the core idea is that every crew complies with what was agreed upon between the operator and the Network Manager. SESAR also foresees for de-confliction tools to solve problems that may arise in real time, but the important thing is that the controllers will no longer be in a tactical mode influencing the individual trajectories. Controllers will rather have a more strategic role to manage the flows of traffic and oversee that everything runs smoothly. This means a major change for pilots who will be in a more active mode during the whole flight, making sure that they comply with the agreed trajectory and analyse different options or scenarios in case of unpredicted events.

A further example of the new role and duties for pilots is the delegation of the separation in specific circumstances aided by tools such as those developed by the Airborne Separation Assistance System projects, in which ECA pilots are involved. This concept will be relying on an extensive use of supporting tools, predictive software and exchange of information, allowing for more precise trajectories to be calculated and flown. This however will pose a higher attention demand on the crews. The 4D trajectory, a cornerstone of the SESAR programme, will ensure computing of the most efficient trajectories for flights. The aircraft will fly the most efficient route available to a predefined point depending on information about weather and traffic conditions, with the ATM and aircraft computers exchanging relevant information via data-link. Yet, a strict 4D trajectory enforcement does not provide for unforeseen events, such as turbulence, evolution of thunderstorms or use of anti-icing devices, etc. Those situations require flexibility, which is a predominantly human strength. ECA’s involvement in SESAR is a way to ensure this flexibility becomes inherent in the new operations and ATM technologies.

Another example of how SESAR will change the role and responsibilities of pilots is related to the so-called ‘intranet’ of the future ATM system – System Wide Information Management (SWIM). Often described as a ‘one-stop shop’ for all the information needed in the air community, SWIM allows air crews to obtain near realtime information about air operations from the ANSPs. This flow of information will enable a swift, cost-efficient decision-making, especially in times of unforeseen circumstances (such as bad weather conditions, delay, etc). At the same time, the existence of this infrastructure will shift the focus towards collaborative decision-making. Although ‘collaborative’ might sound equal to ‘collective’, this cannot be the case. The decision-making process will still require clear lines of accountability and the crews will have to remain the ones taking the decision when dealing with operational decisions that affect their own flight.

The European pilots’ community will continue its tradition of striving for a safer aviation industry in Europe, in line with ECA’s motto to ‘piloting safety’. Throughout every step of SESAR, European pilots will offer a view from the cockpit, share their expertise and invest time and efforts in a modern and ultimately safe ATM system that will be able to keep pace with the future needs of aviation.

Article originally published in SESAR Magazine. Download pdf here.