In Part 2 of this blog series on the future of ATM, Maribel Tomás Rocha and Elizabet Pavlova explore the virtual centre concept and how location independent ATS could revolutionise the use of airspace.

In today’s system, ANSPs are responsible for the provision of ATS in one on more Flight Information Regions (FIR). Each FIR contains an area control centre, with its own systems including a FDP & a network of CNS sensors. The airspace and systems are designed to have sufficient capacity for the forecast traffic – but adding capacity is a complex, timely and expensive process, so capacity often lags behind demand when traffic grows quicker than expected. Further, as the definition of systems and airspace is a national concern, there is often a lack of interoperability between adjacent centres – leading to operational restrictions for flight handovers that are not needed within a FIR.

In the future ATM system, all area control centres will subscribe to data services from a common data layer that ensure that all controller work positions in the network can access synchronised and current information about all flights. This leads to two exciting possibilities:

1) Operating a group of centres as a single virtual centre, such that handovers between centres are as seamless as handovers within a centre; and

2) Dynamic delegation of ATS such that demand capacity balancing can be applied at network level.

This blog explores the potential benefits of both these concepts.

The benefits of virtual centres

Virtual centres weren’t initially developed to support network optimisation – rather they start with Swiss ANSP, skyguide, looking for better ways to provide ATS. The concept sounds simple: operate two centres as one. That way ATCO rostering can be performed across both centres and each centre can provide resilience for the other.

At the heart of the concept is “one system” that integrates all the necessary data and acts as a single Flight Data Processor (FDP) for both centres. Moving this system to “the cloud” isn’t necessary – but a virtual data centre has advantages when considering development and rationalisation of CNS assets. It also means the control room is  fully location independent – a suitable room could be deployed at any suitable location if the primary site becomes unavailable. The combination of virtual control centres and virtual data centres provides real flexibility.

The benefits of cross border operations

It is exactly that flexibility that the Airspace Architecture Study built on when proposing the Capacity on Demand Service to support optimisation at network level.

Whilst virtual control centres provide the platform for increased interoperability and harmonisation of ATS across Europe. The real benefit, however, is optimising airspace at network level – balancing demand by moving capacity to where it is really required. For this to be true, the common data layer needs to enable any control centre to subscribe to the data service necessary to control any airspace.

In the future, it is possible to envisage a European Upper Information Region (EUIR) in which the Network Manager coordinates the provision of capacity at EU level depending on the daily forecast demand. This requires a genuinely dynamic delegation of ATS to airspace and has many organisational and regulatory barriers to be resolved first.


In the meantime, the Capacity on Demand concept will still be able to deliver significant benefits. We think of this in two forms – a collaborative concept and a competitive one:

  • In the collaborative concept a group of ANSPs would effectively perform Demand Capacity Balancing on a seasonal basis across a multinational area. This could be a Functional Airspace Block but need not be a contiguous area – for example an ANSP with busy winter schedule could share capacity with an ANSP with busy summer schedule.
  • In the competitive concept an ANSP could decide to buy spare capacity to reduce delay when faced with unexpected demand or temporary lack of capacity. A market would need to be created – e.g. ANSP would need to declare spare capacity and rules under which it could be provided.

Whatever the concept, the possibility of sharing air traffic between ANSPs lowers the traffic risk taken at a local level – meaning the ANSP capacity plans would be more stable. In fact one of the most important consequences of the future airspace architecture is that the scalability, flexibility and cost efficiency can be delivered from a network of national centres – able to collaboratively work together but each able to control national airspace when the circumstances require it. Either way, sovereignty is maintained.

Future blogs

In Part 3 of this blog series we explore how a common data layer would enable benefits at airports and in Part 4 we discuss the emerging role of ADSPs as the provider of the common data layer.

Think ATM Consultant, Maribel Tomas                                                     Elizabet Pavlova, Think ATM Consultant

Authors: Maribel Tomás Rocha, ATM Consultant  and  Elizabet Pavlova, ATM Consultant