What is Free Route Airspace?
The International Civil Aviation Organization - under its Aviation System Block Upgrade Free Route Operations module – defines free routing as being airspace in which flight plans are not referencing segments of a published air traffic service (ATS) route network to facilitate the utilisation of a user-preferred profile.
What are the benefits of Free Route Airspace?
Primarily the single largest benefit in a FRA operating environment is that airspace users can plan and operate along their preferred trajectories. This is a key step in delivering true trajectory-based operations. Likewise, FRA can offer a number of benefits for airspace users depending on the implementation type (i.e. full or limited). Some bottom-line benefits of FRA include:
- Reduced operating expenses – a decrease in flight times and fuel burn as flight trajectories follow more optimal operating profiles that are aligned with user preferences
- Maximised capacity – an increase in available airspace and a decrease in fixed ATS route conflict points resulting in less ATS intervention
- Diminished environmental impact – a reduction in aviation emissions as a consequence of reduced flight times
- Optimised payload – a reduction in the variance between planned-actual routes, reducing fuel carriage requirements that permit higher revenue-generating payloads
What are the challenges service providers must overcome if planning to implement Free Route Airspace?
Despite the compelling benefits associated with FRA, the implementation of this operating concept does not come without its challenges. Primarily these challenges come down to managing operational risk and coordinating stakeholders.
Firstly, FRA is a fundamental shift in the architectural design of an age-old operating environment. Abolishing the fixed ATS route network means that conflicts becoming harder to detect, as they are no longer concentrated around converging routes. Likewise, these ‘blind’ conflicts become a lot harder to resolve as options for separation diminish; a rise in traffic density only contributes further to this conflict risk. The challenge is for service providers is to clearly understand the impact of change, and to use procedural and technological enablers to address these impacts and ultimately manage operational risk.
Secondly, the implementation of FRA should be considered a holistic airspace change program, therefore it requires a coordinated approach with a wide stakeholder group to ensure smooth and effective change. This includes everyone from customers to regulators, and the whole internal workings of a service provider from safety experts right to frontline staff. By managing operational risk and effectively coordinating with all stakeholders from design to implementation ensures that benefits are maximised and safety is assured.
Each flight information region is different, and each service provider will have their unique operating nuances to tackle. So additional challenges may arise that cover a much broader spectrum of areas from technology to culture. While these challenges do not diminish the potential operating savings of FRA, they do need to be properly and collaboratively tackled to fully capitalise on benefits.
What about Free Route Airspace and HungaroControl?
HungaroControl was the first service provider in Europe to introduce unconditional (i.e. full-implementation) FRA, with no procedural, spatial and temporal restrictions. Following HungaroControl, only a few other service providers globally have succeeded in implementing FRA to a comparable extent. HungaroControl’s FRA implementation is yielding annualised customer savings of 800,000 nautical track miles, $3 million USD in operating expenses and 16 million Kg in CO2.
The real benefits of FRA however increase exponentially where the geographical size of FRA airspace blocks are expanded, promoting operating trajectories over greater distances. Following our successful implementation of unconditional FRA in 2015, we have been working very closely with our neighbouring service providers to integrate our airspace environments with theirs.
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