ATNS is key in Africa’s air traffic management ecosystem, controlling about 10% of global airspace and leading innovations in ATM technology and future aviation professionals’ development. In this exclusive interview with Aviation & Allied Business Journal, the Acting Chief Executive of ATNS, Dumisani Sangweni, Acting Chief Executive, ATNS, explains how ATNS is building resilience against disruptions including the challenge of COVID-19 pandemic. He gives illuminating insights on the future of Africa’s ATM system and aviation industry.
Q: How would you describe the impact of the COVID-19 on your activities over the past 3 months?
A: Two words describe the impact of the pandemic in our activities – adverse and instructive. There has been a drastic reduction in traffic movements due to travel restrictions imposed by many countries, which has had a significant or rather adverse impact on the entire aviation industry.
It is also instructive in a number of ways. Firstly, COVID-19 has required aviation organisations and entities, especially Airport Service Providers and Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) to analyse and review the way they operate. It has validated concepts of modernisation which support the “Office of the Future Concept” where certain functions within ATNS, including operational ones, may be operated remotely. The remote operation has a reliance on a sound and secure IT infrastructure deployment and the ability to access and exchange information within and external to the business. It also presupposes a robust Communication, Navigation and Surveillance (CNS) network, properly integrated with redundancy to enable remoting of our approach, area and tower operations.
Secondly, COVID -19 has highlighted the importance of digital transformation within the business by supporting a paperless and automated business environment, as well as the ability to provide mobility of operations and virtual collaboration tools to interact within, and external to the business.This is underpinned by integrated processes and enabled by a mature Quality Management System (QMS).
The ATNS Business Continuity Plan formulated by the ATNS COVID-19 Response Team has been critically important in outlining how the business would continue to operate during an unplanned disruption in service. Disaster recovery and business continuity has always been part of our strategic risk assessment and mitigation planning. In all our role play and scenario planning for an impending disaster, we envisaged physical destruction and damage to our core operational facilities that would render them inoperable.
Little did we imagine a virus that cannot be seen may have the potential to bring some of our critical facilities to a screeching halt. The resilience to recover from an event such as this pandemic is reliant on data and advanced analytics that supports a more agile operating model, involving but not limited to core infrastructure redundancy as well as operational workforce planning and rotation.
Lastly, COVID-19 has highlighted the requirements for additional capacity building and skills development – to support a remote-based workforce. Additionally, we see a potential and significant innovation effort that must drive the organisation towards ingratiating and accelerating the digital business agenda within the organisation.This is critical to ensuring ATNS achieves its mission critical priorities and strategic objectives. ATNS has had to adapt to operating amidst theCOVID-19 regulations promulgated by Government and during the various risk adjusted levels the country has gone through. The Response Team is working very hard to imbibe the concept of social distancing and adhere to the protocols as laid out within the corporate and service delivery environment,complemented by a continuously improved, effective and efficient communication with our own staff.
Most ATNS corporate head office employees continue to adhere to the “work from home notice” until stated otherwise. Only those designated employees that have critical functions to perform have been permitted to report to work at the head office. Our operational schedule has been restructured in such a way that we have few operational air traffic control and maintenance staff at a given time in order to minimise the probability of infection.
Q: Now the industry is re-starting flight operations, what are your expectations?
A: Considering that the “hub-and-spoke” model is predominant across Africa in different geographic regions including West Africa, East Africa and indeed Southern Africa, it is to be expected that with the resumption of air services – domestic in the case of South Africa -initially load factors will be low near or within the “golden triangle”. As more airports come on line and are reopened within South Africa, traffic numbers and by extension Air Traffic Movements (ATMs) should increase when the feeder routes start complementing traffic to the routes on the “golden triangle”.
It is however anticipated that the significant increase in traffic resulting in higher load factors for airlines on routes will only take place with the restoration of international services which will lead to increased connectivity between regional African and global hubs, including point-to-point traffic from popular business and leisure destinations. The critical mass to generate required ATMs required to sustain ATNS would occur at this point although it is further anticipated that the recovery of ATMs to pre COVID-19 levels could be tailed anywhere from 4 four to 8 eight years in a pessimistic scenario.
Truth be told, like any impactful event – with specific reference to current situation, it is not known how this recovery is likely to unfold. We are mostly likely to see a slow start as passengers regain the confidence to fly again. This will also largely be impacted by the availability of the Covid-19 vaccine.
From an ANSP perspective we should ensure that we use this period to prepare entities to confront the realities of a transformed aviation sector and airline industry. That they are ready to support same through efficiently and cost effectively run operations that will eventually ensure minimum disruptions and sustainability.
Q: How prepared is ATNS to provide support to the industry and is ATNS looking at helping African airlines reduce cost of operation by way of waivers on navigational charges given the harsh impact of the COVID-19 pandemic?
A: ATNS has been engaging with various stakeholders in the South African aviation industry,including our shareholder, the Department of Transport. This extensive exercise has been undertaken through various forums, in order to assess the state of the industry, develop and implement strategic and operational initiatives which would assist in the recovery and resuscitation of the aviation industry,including the recovery of airlines and service providers like ATNS.
Unfortunately, ATNS is not in a position to waive navigational charges given its operating model based on the user-pay principle though which tariffs billed on ATMs ensure its sustainability. Such an action would not be in its best interests of the industry at large. We as an entity do not rely on state funding from the fiscus and are expected to manage our affairs and ensure our financial sustainability within the regulatory context and tariff dispensation, as agreed with industry and the Economic Regulator. Understanding that this model is challenging given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, ATNS has however engaged with the airline industry through its associations, IATA, AASA and BARSA to deliberate around certain “industry concessions”. This could alleviate the pressure and distress felt by the airline industry and assist in its recovery. These discussions and interactions with the industry association – including the Economic Regulator – are on-going.
Q: Africa faces shortage of aviation professionals in key areas including ATM; how is ATNS looking to effectively manage this impending crisis?
A: ATNS is fortunate to have a healthy Air Traffic Management (ATM) and general staff position from key operational staff such as air traffic controllers (ATC), engineers, engineering technicians, ATM/ Information Technology (IT) and CNS specialists including vital support staff and management at a corporate level. As mentioned earlier, we have been able to schedule our ATC and technical engineering staff into operational teams to reduce the impact of possible COVID-19 infections.
Using this approach, it is assumed potential infections will be limited to the specific operational teams, while ATM service provision to the industry can continue and we may mitigate disruption and try to ensure uninterrupted service to airspace users. We also have adequate and well-trained specialist staff, especially in the ATM/ IT domain and most have been confined to working from home as is the case with support staff.
Another critical and key factor is the ATNS Aviation Training Academy that provides critical ATC and engineering technician training to support the ATM service provision. This facility has been closed throughout the lock-down period and innovative ways to train staff, both for recurrent and rating training as per South African Civil Aviation Regulatory Authority regulations, are being explored ahead of its soft reopening.
Q: Achieving seamless interoperability and facilities harmonization among African ANSPs is still a challenge. In your own assessment, how have African ANSPs closed this gap in harmonization and interoperability?
A: This process is being addressed though ICAO by the AFI Planning and Implementation Regional Group (APIRG) that ensures that regional planning is addressed harmoniously. ICAO ensures proper timing of new procedures, ICAO recommended practices and infrastructure are deployed amongst member States and their ANSPs, as well as ensuring inter-operability amongst other States and their ANSPs. This is facilitated through APIRG sub-groups such as the Aerodrome and Airspace Sub Groups (AAO SG) and various PIRG Infrastructure and Information Management Sub-Groups (IIM SG).
Further to this, ATNS is a member of Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO), an ANSP representative association of which it is a founder member, which amongst other activities, it advocates for a seamless African and global “sky” airspace and encourages a Collaborative Decision Making (CDM) process and integrated approach on how affiliate member ANSPs operate.
Apart from its CANSO activities that are focused around enhancing safety amongst member ANSPs, South Africa through ATNS is also participating in South Atlantic Regional Meetings in the Oceanic Airspaces where there are efforts to ensure interoperability and efficiency of procedures and infrastructure through the following initiatives including AFI ANSP Peer Review Programme; Regional Aviation Safety Group for Africa-Indian Ocean (RASC-AFI); Mombasa Air Traffic Flow Management (ATFM) initiative, and System-Wide Information Management (SWIM) Programme to facilitate AIS to AIM management.
Q: The Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) technology is gradually being introduced into parts of Africa, with ASECNA announcing this technology late 2019; how would you describe the ADS-B and the expected impact among ANSPs on the continent?
A: Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) and Space Based (ADS-B), a satellite-based surveillance system and technology, is expected to complement current terrestrial surveillance systems to improve the surveillance footprint within the FIR of an ANSP and eventually replace terrestrial systems where safety and business cases validate this path, paving the way for this technology to become the future surveillance system.
ADS-B will ensure that adequate conflict management and relevant navigational assistance is achieved. ATNS is implementing and trialing these satellite-based technologies within its FIR and has been doing so by working and collaborating with various OEMs for almost a decade now, including in the Navigation and Communications space. ADS-B Mode S technology which enables the automatic provision of essential information fed to the Automated Air Traffic Management Systems – required to meet the challenges posed by the global concepts and resultant plans -is also being implemented by ATNS.
Considering the outcome of the ICAO APIRG 22, it is expected that an assessment to aircraft equipage in the region will be concluded by 2022, thereafter all aircraft operating in Reduced Vertical Separation Minima (RVSM) airspace, should be equipped with ABS-B transponders, extended squitter 1090 by AIRAC EFF 15 June 2023 and it is only then that, all aircraft operating in the AFI region by 2025 will be ADS-B Mode S compliant.
- To be continued in October-November edition of Aviation & Allied Business Journal