FRA: how Free Routes unlock the skies

The advent of Free Route Airspace (FRA) is creating new challenges for air traffic control professionals. The EUROCONTROL Experimental Centre (EEC) at Brétigny helps the control centres meet this major change.

Since the advent of commercial flight, aircraft have flown along defined routes much like a motorway system in the sky. Junctions connect the different routes and established rules for direction and altitude flown helped to ensure safety. However, on this network crisscrossing our skies few flights were on a direct route from departure to arrival airport.

Advances in navigational technology and techniques, ground infrastructure and cross border cooperation now make more direct routes possible. Starting with a limited set of direct tracks, Europe is now progressing towards the full implementation of Free Route Airspace which allows the users to fly an optimal route of their choice, taking other factors like wind and weather into account, without being limited to a published route structure.

“Thanks to this concept, companies can plan and easily modify the route most suited to their commercial needs (direct routes, lower fuel consumption, reduced CO2 emissions and potential for lower prices for their customers)” explained Kevin Harvey, Operational Team Leader in the Simulation Unit at the EEC. Air traffic controllers, in turn, ensure that the planned route is respected.

In a Free Route Airspace (FRA) environment air traffic controllers remain responsible for the safe separation of flights. Traffic flows still need to be organised and structured near airports and close to military airspace. “Tools and procedures have been developed to help controllers manage this major change in the way traffic flies” says the Team Leader.

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Facilitating a major change

Starting in 2001 the EEC has conducted multiple real-time simulations on FRA. These realistic experiments assessed the impact of this major change on the workload of the controllers and influenced the technical developments that have allowed for subsequent implementation. “Our simulations help the European air traffic control centres to prepare for this significant change in working methods”.  In recent years, simulations for FABEC*, FAB Danube**, Norway and Poland have validated FRA plans, paving the way for implementation.

FRA will progressively cover the entire airspace over the next years. “To ensure safe and smooth implementation, some States have introduced FRA in steps – at night or on weekends only initially – but are changing quickly to 24 hrs. operations. EUROCONTROL Network Manager launched the FRA strategic project in 2008 and is working with all partners to harmonise and synchronise full FRA in European airspace with a target date of 2021” added Kevin Harvey.

* FABEC:  Functional Airspace Block Europe Central. The FABEC initiative is driven by civil and military partners of six States: High-level officials from the Ministries of Transport and Defense of Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

In addition to the six participating countries, the United Kingdom is also linked to FABEC as a collaborative partner. This link testifies to the close interaction of FABEC airspace with UK airspace, in particular with the main airports in the London area.

** FAB Danube:  Functional Airspace Block Danube (between the Republic of Bulgaria and Romania)