EXECUTIVE INTERVIEW: Ángel Luis Arias, CEO of ENAIRE
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How has the pandemic affected air traffic management as it concerns the Middle East?
COVID-19 has led to a general reduction in the number of flights managed in Spanish airspace in 2020 and early 2021, as it has in the rest of Europe. The effect on flights from all over the world has been considerable, although flights from the Middle East have been much less affected than flights from other areas, such as the United Kingdom or Germany, flights from which fell by as much as 90% at times. Spain is the world's second leading tourist destination, and these two years, especially 2020, have seen a very drastic reduction in the volume of air traffic.
Have agents in the aviation industry responded quickly to meet the changing needs of the market?
Yes, of course. Specifically, ENAIRE, the air navigation service provider in Spain, is planning to invest 127.1 million euros in 2021 into its Strategic Plan, the 2025 Flight Plan, which will help to transform its technology and airspace, as well as boost the recovery of the aviation sector. This investment will focus on digitising air navigation and control systems, and on restructuring the airspace and new operational concepts for the purpose of building the Single European Sky.
ENAIRE is working toward the sustainable development of air transport through a firm commitment to environmental protection. The fight against climate change and reducing the environmental impact of air traffic have become our primary objectives.
In what geographical areas do you see the greatest growth potential for air traffic?
Satellite technology will allow us to provide services worldwide, which will undoubtedly lead to traffic growth in remote and oceanic areas, where the inability to install land-based radio aids requires increasing the distance between aircraft and, consequently, reducing the capacity at the flight levels that are most efficient in terms of reduced fuel consumption, and are thus more environmentally sustainable.
Initiatives such as STARTICAL, from ENAIRE and INDRA, will pave the way for the provision of satellite communications and surveillance services in the Middle East as well, which will have similar performance to land-based services and allow for significant growth in operations in these areas without affecting the equipment on-board aircraft.
What technologies do you think will most affect air traffic management in the next five years?
The current trend is towards the digitalization and sharing of information: integrating artificial intelligence and Big Data into systems (both on land and on-board) will enable powerful computers to optimise the tasks of pilots and controllers. Interconnections between land and air systems will streamline pilot-controller communications, minimising risks.
In this regard, future versions of advanced automated air traffic control systems, such as iTEC, developed jointly by European air navigation service providers ENAIRE, DFS, NATS, LVNL, PANSA, Aeronavigatsia and Avinor, with INDRA as a technology partner, are taking the next step by phasing in artificial intelligence and improvements in man-machine interface processes.
If we add to this the aforementioned satellite services, such as STARTICAL, which will provide service worldwide, the great change in the concept of air traffic management will become evident in coming years.
What are your expectations for the Dubai Airshow 2021, bearing in mind that it will be the first event of its kind since the coronavirus pandemic?
In 2020, the main strategic challenge was managing the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, due to the significant effects it had on our activity, and which forced ENAIRE to adjust its objectives. The recovery from the crisis is the most important challenge for the company and the aviation sector.
The Middle East region figures prominently in our business plans, and the Dubai Airshow is the perfect stage to showcase our products, whether in stands or by taking part in conferences. Also important are the accommodations made to provide direct access to the event for ANSPs, CAAs and other national authorities, thanks to the organisation itself and to the resources it is making available to exhibitors.
What plans does ENAIRE have in the region?
One clear objective is the opportunity to provide ATS and CNS services, which is possible in the region thanks to its highly advanced liberalisation framework with respect to other regions, and where we believe that the level of excellence achieved by ENAIRE will allow us to penetrate new markets. There is also the possibility for national ANSPs in the region to integrate solutions and products developed by ENAIRE, such as COMETA, our voice communication system; PERSEO, to analyse Big Data; ICARO MAPS, to support flow management; and EYWA, which provides access to real-time information on the status of the network and infrastructure.
In the future, our interests will lie in incorporating the services of STARTICAL, developed with INDRA, to provide surveillance and communications services globally through a constellation, LEO, available from 2027, which will allow ATC separation to be maintained in oceanic and remote airspace at competitive prices.
How can the industry better prepare for fluctuations in air traffic? What have we learnt?
We must all adapt efficiently and sustainably to potential traffic fluctuations. We have learnt that we must be flexible and be able to react quickly to contingencies such as the one we experienced, since this affects air traffic control and Communications, Navigation and Surveillance (CNS) services. In these two years of pandemic, the industry has been able to deal with it by containing costs and, in our case, lowering air navigation charges to facilitate the sustainability of the system and the operational performance of airlines.
Of the 38 countries in EUROCONTROL, Spain, through ENAIRE, is the one that is lowering its route charges the most in 2021, around 8% below the average charge. And, ENAIRE is in a position to be fully operational following the foreseeable rapid increase in traffic, while upholding our standards, especially in terms of operational safety.
What critical technologies are needed to allow for a complete and safe recovery?
Digitalization, virtualisation and remote service provision, as well as the provision of satellite CNS services, will be the key not only to a safe recovery, but also to enhancing our resilience so that we can tackle unexpected increases and decreases in traffic, and contribute to greater efficiency and to a lower carbon footprint in aviation. All of this will be accompanied by the cybersecurity needed to guarantee the integrity of information in an ecosystem that will be underpinned by the exchange of information.
Finally, I would like to point out that ENAIRE has developed a service portfolio that allows us to offer support in areas of consultancy, training, and implementation of SW and CNS-ATM tools. ENAIRE has also signed a Partnership Agreement with the Polytechnic University of Madrid (UPM) and the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM) to jointly organise a Master's in Air Navigation Services Management.