ATM planners wary of Chinese vulnerabilities

Singapore Air Show » 2006
November 30, 2006, 11:15 AM

China has been emerging lately as a truly global player in commerce and tourism, but as the Beijing Olympic Games approach in 2008, followed by the Shanghai World Expo two years later, the country must solve major infrastructural, cultural and equipment issues.

While growth forecasts are subject to the influence of unforeseen forces, there is general agreement with China’s own predictions that in the coming 20 years its air traffic will grow by at least 10 percent annually, and possibly more. In the process, the People’s Republic will become the world’s second largest aviation market, requiring between 1,500 and 2,000 new aircraft over the period to handle the predicted internal and external growth.

All this presents a huge air traffic management (ATM) challenge. According to Neil
Planzer, vice president of strategy for Boeing’s ATM business unit, China has made upgrading its ATM system a key objective of its global strategic plan, having clearly understood that a fast-growing airline industry must be accompanied by a safe ATM system.

Planzer, who has extensive experience advising China on ATM issues, said there are significant concerns about how the country will get from where it is today to where it needs to be. “We’re looking at maybe a growth from a million air traffic control movements a year today to four or five times that by 2020,” he told Aviation International News. “Today, [China’s] ATM system couldn’t do it.

“Boeing has taken a lead in working with China to develop its ATM infrastructure,” Planzer pointed out, because it is in the interest of Boeing, Airbus and any other aerospace industry firm hoping to break into China to ensure that their products function in a safe environment. “We want China to achieve its growth in a safe, orderly way so we can compete to sell aircraft in the right environment,” Planzer explained.

Procedures Limit Capacity

Today, aircraft operating in Chinese airspace do so largely using procedural air traffic control whereby aircraft fly through the system on the basis of timed arrivals at given waypoints. This places severe limits on the amount of traffic that can be handled, and changing to a radar-controlled environment is one of the main thrusts of the ATM modernization program.

Another major hindrance to growth is that Chinese civil traffic movements are totally under military oversight, and often control. So much so that in one example witnessed by Planzer, a pair of military combat aircraft flying from a civil/military airfield caused a total shutdown of civilian operations until they had returned from their mission.

Currently, all ATM activities, both civil and military, come under the aegis of the general Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), with ATM matters directly under its offshoot, the ATM Bureau (ATMB), which is responsible for the planning, funding and procurement of air traffic control equipment.

Beyond the central ATMB, there are the ATMBs of the regional administrations of civil aviation, the ATM centers of the provincial administrations of civil aviation and ATM units at the airports. However, according to Planzer, “it is not clear who reports to whom in these centers.”

The ATMB provides services across eight flight information regions, 27 upper control areas, 28 medium-to-low control areas and 144 low control areas. Recent estimates put the number of routes in China at 1,122, along with 87 international routes.

Today in China, an estimated 30 primary surveillance radars and 25 secondary surveillance radars cover an area 40 times larger than the UK, where approximately 55 radars of both types are operated by the National Air Traffic Services. In addition, China has around 160 VOR/DME sites and 400 NDBs. There are around 140 instrument landing systems at airports, although their status is unclear.

China plans a transition within the next 10 to 15 years from today’s status quo to a new system of regional air traffic control centers (ACCs) and full conversion from procedural to radar-based ATC. Planzer is adamant, however, that in the relatively undeveloped western part of the country China has a golden opportunity to skip a generation of ATM technology. “I see it as the perfect Petri dish in which new ATM technologies such as automatic dependent surveillance-B and controller-pilot datalink communications can be brought in at an early stage,” he said. “Then they would migrate east to the Beijing-Guangzhou-Shanghai triangle.”

With this in mind, Planzer warned against selling China legacy ATM systems that will soon be outdated. “This is a chance to move this area straight into modern ATM technology,” he said.

The ATMB is currently working on new area control centers at Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai as well as upgrading radars and other equipment on the trunk routes between those cities. The airspace will be restructured to reduce the current 27 ACC centers to just five by 2010, and the CAAC is redesigning terminal maneuvering areas in dense traffic areas.

A recent report by industry analysts Frost & Sullivan pointed to another potentially more serious problem–training of sufficient controllers to handle the projected growth. The report found that China has around 3,600 controllers today but will need 6,200 by 2010. Reasons include the high turnover of controllers who have become disillusioned owing to the lack of a proper grading structure within the ATMB, and, in the western provinces, a lack of motivation because of poor salaries and career prospects. The Frost & Sullivan report also noted that the current operating structure of the ATMB does not place enough emphasis on efficiency, which leads to difficulties with controller recruitment and retention.

Safety is at the heart of the challenge faced by China’s ATM community, and Boeing and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, along with Euro-control and other professional bodies in the West are working hard to ensure that the system meets international standards.

Few doubt that China has the willingness and ability to prepare its ATM system for the challenges ahead, among which are the serious restrictions on available airspace on any particular day caused by military ownership of all of China’s airspace. For example, the military currently has to approve all changes to flight routes before the ATMB can issue permits to airlines to operate them, causing delays as well as increased operating costs.

Priority is now focused on giving civil aviation lead status, and for general aviation–also likely to experience rapid growth–approval time for flights is being reduced from a week or more to just six hours. But, as in many Western countries, the military is often reluctant to give up its airspace, especially when there has been a strong culture of military control over daily life.

The CAAC has already spent around $1 billion on ATM infrastructure improvements and plans to spend a further $850 million over the next five years. In the near term, at least, most of the equipment will be imported, making China easily the world’s biggest ATC market.

Expansion of airports will also be central to accommodating the growth. China’s latest five-year plan, revealed in 2001, calls for the upgrade or total refurb-ishment of 40 regional airports. The main projects include relocating Guangzhou Baiyun airport increasing the capacity of Beijing and Shanghai airports and improving smaller regional airports, with an emphasis on building more in the western region. The aim is to increase the number of airports capable of handling scheduled airlines from around 160 today to 260 by 2015.

Given the extraordinary energy and commitment of China in preparing for the 2008 Olympic Games and beyond, there is little doubt that the ATM system will be improved to cope with the expected growth in traffic. The hope is that it is done so with an eye toward preparing for the “single sky” approach being taken by the European and U.S. ATM systems, which will yield a far more efficient system and prepare China for the relentless air traffic growth ahead.

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