Covid-19 has been the overriding concern for the aviation industry in 2020 and up until now. This much is understandable, but it’s crucial to remember that the looming challenge of climate change hasn’t gone anywhere in the intervening time.

Sustainability has risen rapidly to the forefront of the public agenda in recent years, with the spotlight shining brighter on air travel than many other industries. There is a worry that the short-term focus on dealing with the fallout of the pandemic – while urgent in itself – could push global warming down the list of priorities and leave the world more vulnerable to the existential threat of climate change.

“While everyone welcomed the short-term respite from spiralling emissions, the pandemic’s long-term impact on climate change could be negative,” Zurich Insurance Group chief risk officer Peter Giger wrote for the World Economic Forum in October 2020. “As governments, businesses and individuals focus on rebuilding shattered economies, balance sheets or simply paying the rent, the green agenda could become a ‘nice to have’.”

The industry must avoid this ‘nice to have scenario’. For air traffic management operators in particular, the onus is on building back sustainably to protect both the future of the industry and of the planet itself.

Sustainability for the ATM sector falls under three categories when looking to the future:

  1. Environmental sustainability that incrementally builds a greener travel journey through improved efficiencies, route optimisation and natural resource reduction

  2. Economic sustainability that builds resilience and security to ensure long-term durability and a strong competitive edge.

  3. Human resource sustainability that leverages modern technology to automate tasks, reducing labour needs over time and creating an improved working environment for employees.

All three of these areas need to be addressed in order to forge a sustainable path forwards for the sector. The threat of climate change is of course most pertinently addressed by the first of these categories. lists a number of concerning incidents from recent years that emphasise the need for airports and ATM operators to build climate resiliency.

These incidents range from wind-induced airport collisions (between parked planes) in Qatar to typhoon-flooded facilities in Japan. In late 2020, Qantas Domestic and International CEO Andrew David told The Australian that climate change is to blame for a rising number of flight cancellations and delays in Australia, with prevailing winds shifting from south-south-westerly to westerly  and forcing the closure of runways at Sydney Airport, and higher wind speeds creating challenges more generally.

These threats are not going to go away during or after the Covid-19 pandemic, so ATM must invest in digital technologies to enhance sustainability as well as to drive internal efficiencies for economic and human resource sustainability.

The digital transformation of ATM can build a strong foundation of sustainability prior to the arrival of ‘silver-bullet’ eco-friendly fuels or new propulsion systems that will, hopefully, help to drive down carbon emissions. An example is the ability to modernise ground systems – matching ground and aircraft capabilities will allow planes to fly the most fuel-efficient routings possible.

Meanwhile, extended arrival manager (XMAN) systems can optimise arrival management by allowing for aircraft to be slowed down, so their time waiting in fuel-intensive holding stacks is reduced. Global satellite surveillance can also play a part in sector-wide ability to tweak flight plans to avoid diverse weather conditions. This is already in evidence in some regions, such as the space-based ADS-B network being developed by US-based Aireon in partnership with key air navigation service providers.

The potential applications of advanced digital technology in the quest to achieve climate resilience are broad. Air Traffic Management organisations face a new environment following the Single European Sky (SESAR) initiatives led by the European Union. The need to sustainably modernise the technology that underpins the key players in the European sector and adopt virtualisation has never been greater or more important.

Meeting the urgent demands to address the effects of climate change and look to the development of an important sector that delivers a valuable service to the public and businesses remains a priority, even as operators continue to battle with the effects of Covid-19. By adopting a robust and agile digital foundation, ATM operators can do so while managing the finance issues associated with scaling as people take to the skies again.

VMware can deliver the innovation and emerging technology to build a sustainable future for the air traffic industry. Get in touch with us today to find out how we can work together to re-imagine the future of flight.


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