Better air traffic management makes for happier passengers

How Iris will transform operations and the passenger experience

Passenger experience may appear to have little to do with what goes on behind the flight deck door, but that’s only true when a flight goes smoothly. Throw in a delay or cancellation triggered by a busy route or an airport terminal bottleneck, and the passenger soon becomes more concerned with what’s happening behind the cockpit door than what’s available in the cabin.

Not that the impact of any disruption is contained to a particular flight. What may only appear to be a mere schedule change for an airline can be calamity for its passengers, and a missed connection or ruined holiday can easily lead to reputational damage, tarnishing a brand and negatively affecting revenue.

With air traffic forecast to double by 2035 and European airspace among the most travelled, routine disruption could well just be one inescapable downside for air travel – but a remedy is in the works. It’s called Iris and while ostensibly designed to deliver game-changing operational benefits to airlines, this air traffic modernisation programme has some surprising implications for passenger experience, too.

Introducing Iris

To address this issue of improving air traffic management efficiency in increasingly congested skies, the European Commission launched the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management (ATM) research programme. Also known as SESAR, its mission is to modernise the air traffic management system within Europe.  By upgrading current communications systems and procedures,  it will make air travel more efficient and insure the safety of aviation passengers and crews.

Enter the Iris Programme – a public private partnership between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Inmarsat to develop a satellite-based communication solution that relieves the pressure on ground-based radio frequencies by using satellite communications. In short, it’s a highly resilient and secure satellite-based alternative to the currently congested radio frequencies currently used for air traffic management. And it will deliver benefits to air traffic management, airlines and to passengers.

Powered by SB-S, Inmarsat’s secure global IP broadband for the cockpit, Iris provides accurate positioning for aircraft to ground air traffic control (ATC) systems and enables digital communication between the two. At the operational level, this means increasingly complex ATC clearances can be issued reliably at any point during a flight, making aircraft management more efficient.

Iris means aircraft can fly closer together safely, flight plans can be tailored while still in the air and aircraft sequencing can be optimised to match runway capacity. More importantly for passengers, it means a much reduced risk of disruption and a much higher chance of a happy journey.

Air traffic controller at work

Accurate tracking optimises flights

Iris enables much more efficient use of airspace. Airlines can then schedule more flights to popular destinations using the most optimal (and hence most in-demand) routes, while passengers are more likely to find flights with their preferred airlines that match their intended travel plans – rather than the other way around.

Precise aircraft positioning will also lead to shorter flight times and fewer delays – dealing with Europe’s fragmented airspace, which already adds 42 kilometres to an average flight, due to the need to add a buffer for the handoffs between different national air traffic blocks. With the ability to update flight paths while a plane is still en route, Iris not only makes airspace less susceptible to congestion, but also allows airlines to capitalise on more efficient routes. That means even though they’re travelling through crowded skies, passengers stand more chance of reaching their destination on time – or ahead of it.

An end to holding patterns

Of course, approaching an airport isn’t quite the end of a flight – the plane also has to land. Popular destinations tend to involve busy hubs and stacking inbound aircraft on a first come, first served basis is notorious for introducing delays to flights that are otherwise on schedule. With the significantly enhanced trajectory management Iris makes possible, however, ATC can instead sequence aircraft well ahead of their approach to make best use of runway capacity, and better cope with overloads caused by spikes in air traffic or bad weather.

As far as passengers are concerned, the less time wasted circling the skies in a holding pattern, the better, but that’s not the only consideration for passenger experience here. With tailored arrivals, Iris lets each aircraft begin its final approach on an optimal smooth descent profile.Think of it as gliding down a bannister, rather than descending a staircase one level at a time. This optimises routes for both speed and fuel savings.

An optimal flight path for all legs of a journey also has one other important benefit – it reduces fuel burn. Overall fuel costs are reduced accordingly, but so too are greenhouse gas emissions. This is an increasingly important consideration for both passengers concerned about carbon footprints and airlines bound by ever-stricter environmental regulations across the EU.

Going live

The ground-breaking Iris programme has set a new benchmark for connected aviation – both through its unprecedented improvements to airline operations and its secondary effects on passenger experience. In short, the benefits brought to passengers through high-speed connectivity aren’t just limited to better broadband in the cabin.

Europe is an early adopter with this technology and airlines in this market will be the first to benefit – Iris will go live here as early as 2019 and be fully operational by 2028. But Iris will also create similar deployment opportunities in other regions where the growth of air traffic is placing strain on ground-based networks – and where airlines want a better experience for their passengers.