Air traffic management and the challenge of digital transformation


by Evelyne Defays - Program Director Digital Transformation
| minute read

Air traffic is expected to continue its rapid growth in the coming years. The current rise in climate activism in Europe and to keep air traffic management workable and safe, a profound digital transformation is necessary.

Aviation and economic growth go hand in hand. The rapidly expanding middle classes in India and China increase the demand for air traffic. Recent economic growth in Europe also resulted in more consumers travelling by air. According to Eurocontrol, the number of flights will rise from 10.6 million in 2016 to 12.4 million by 2024. Every year and in every region in Europe, an extra 1,000 flights are added to local air traffic schedules.

The changes in the aviation industry aren’t just about volume. The nature of the business is changing as well. Air traffic is no longer built around hubs – such as London or Paris – as was the case in the past decades. In today’s air space, traffic has become increasingly dense, as a result of the rising number of point to point flights. On a busy day in 2017, there were about 37,000 flights in Europe. By 2030, that number will rise to a stunning 58,000 flights per day.

However, growing congestion in traditional aviation is not the industry’s only concern. There is also the impact of straight-forward disruption. Drones, for example, are becoming a mature technology for small cargo air transportation, for surveillance, in farming, and more. As drones appear in the sky, the entire aviation business will have to comply to new regulations.

Mission-critical legacy systems

Air traffic management is struggling to keep up with this evolution. As air traffic management is a very specific business, its current IT systems are often custom-made: developed, built and maintained in-house. But the fact remains that these ageing tools can’t always handle the increasing complexity, needs and expectations of the business. At the same time, the industry is looking at technology to come up with a solution to face the new challenges.

Even if today’s air traffic management systems are doing what they need to do, who says they will tomorrow? It is a major challenge to migrate the industry from its trusted, home-grown platforms to an entirely new generation of technology. Most of the industry’s mission-critical applications are running on legacy platforms. And yes, they are reliable for what they need to do today, but it remains difficult to predict whether they will be able to keep up with speed of change that will be hitting the industry in the years ahead.