Free route airspace (FRA)

Free route airspace (FRA) is a specified airspace within which users can freely plan a route between a defined entry point and a defined exit point, with the possibility of routeing via intermediate (published or unpublished) waypoints, without reference to the air traffic services (ATS) route network, subject of course to availability. Within such airspace, flights remain subject to air traffic control.

In 2008, EUROCONTROL initiated the coordinated development and implementation of FRA in cooperation with civil and military experts in airspace design, ECAC member states, ANSPs, airspace users, flight planning organisations and relevant international bodies.

Benefits

FRA is a way of overcoming the efficiency, capacity and environmental problems facing aviation.

Airspace users

The move from routes to free airspace availability offers significant opportunities to airspace users. Savings in distance from these improvements could be as much as 25,000 NM a day. Flying distances can be reduced by approximately 7.5 million NM, representing the equivalent of 45,000 tons of fuel saved, or a reduction in emissions of 150,000 tonnes, or EUR 37 million. Airspace users are gradually adapting their flight planning systems to fully exploit the potential of FRA while the concept is compatible with current navigation capability.

ANSPs

Operating a FRA environment offers improved predictability thanks to more stable trajectories while at the same time enhancing the use of conflict detection tools. This concept can lead to a better spread of conflicts compared with the concentration of conflicts generated by the current fixed route network. In addition, ANSPs have not identified any major problems which would prevent them from implementing the concept even in one of the busiest volumes of airspace in the world – the area covered by the Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre.

FRA is a key landmark in achieving free routing across European airspace on the road to SESAR business trajectories and 4D profiles. By 2019/20, additional savings of between 60,000-75,000 NM a day can be expected, with the subsequent fuel, environmental and cost benefits. FRA will make it possible to meet the demands of future airspace users over the next 50 years, such as civil and military RPAS, hypersonic transport, spaceplane operations to sub-orbit, wireless network balloons and airships.

Technical and operational support

To achieve these goals, EUROCONTROL as Network Manager provides support to ANSPs in the form of airspace design, concept of operations, advice on aeronautical publication and the pre-validation of each new FRA environment to ensure that airspace users are able to plan flights in line with the concept. EUROCONTROL is also providing appropriate solutions to further enhance operational performance and resolve any potential problems which may arise as a result of the implementation of the FRA. We are doing so by offering proactive coordination, and also technical and operational support, where this is requested from the NM, for local or sub-regional free route airspace initiatives, ensuring that the requisite network improvements are in place to support those initiatives.

Coordination and support activities include:

  • development of a European free route airspace concept in the contexts of ARN Version 7 and the European route network improvement plan (ERNIP) Part 1;
  • provision of an overall focal point to consolidate and circulate information on initiatives, plans and proposals;
  • support for airspace design and utilisation projects for individual ANSPs, FABs or groups of ANSPs and FABs;
  • fast-time simulation evaluations of workload and capacity;
  • large-scale real-time simulations (RTS);
  • technical and operational support to ensure the adoption of a common approach and consistency between different initiatives;
  • identification of the requisite network enablers, in particular:
    • system adaptation and compatibility across the network;
    • harmonised AIS publication;
    • a checklist of free route airspace implementation actions;
    • enhanced flight planning procedures;
    • initiating work at network level to ensure that enablers are available;
    • support for airspace design and ASM/ATFCM processes at network, FAB and local levels;
    • support for the coordinated deployment of local, sub-regional and network aspects of these initiatives;
    • validation of airspace design and utilisation projects through the Network Manager Operations Centre (NMOC);
    • coordination of the development of network systems and operational procedures.

Background

In its role as the Network Manager, EUROCONTROL is responsible for the implementation of an advanced concept of operations, including free route operations, and a pan-European view of FRA deployment.

Further development was made possible by the approval of Commission Regulation (EU) No 677/2011 laying down detailed rules for the implementation of air traffic management (ATM) network functions and amending Regulation (EU) No 691/2010.

Annex I of this Regulation describes the European Route Network Design function and the European Route Network Improvement Plan (ERNIP) as including “an agreed European route network and, where feasible, free route airspace structure designed to meet all user requirements”.

As part of the ERNIP, the Network Manager is developing and maintaining the following:

  • The European Route Network Improvement Plan (ERNIP) Part 1 - A European airspace design methodology – General principles, guidelines and technical specifications for airspace design: includes a Free Route Airspace Concept
  • The European Route Network Improvement Plan (ERNIP) Part 2 - European ATS route network (ARN) versions: includes all the free route airspace projects scheduled for development and implementation over a five-year rolling period
  • The European Route Network Improvement Plan (ERNIP) Part 3 - ASM Handbook: includes all the necessary civil/military aspects related to free route airspace
  • The European Route Network Improvement Plan (ERNIP) Part 4 - Route availability document (RAD) user manual: includes the appropriate route orientation and flight plan facilitating measures for free route airspace.

The four implementation plans and all ERNIP monthly reports are available in the ERNIP Library.

ERNIP Library

Concept of operations

The scope of the FRA Concept is to provide a framework for the harmonised and safe implementation of free route operations in Europe whenever one or more States/FABs/ANSPs decide(s) to proceed with such implementation. This Concept can be used for the Europe-wide implementation of free route airspace.

The FRA Concept encompasses various free route implementation scenarios which will:

  • meet the safety objectives;
  • be compatible with existing operations;
  • be sustainable through further development;
  • be capable of expansion to and connectivity with adjacent airspace;
  • be capable of being exported to other regions.

For more information please download our free route airspace (FRA) developments document.

DOWNLOAD

Implementation

By the end of 2016, 48 ACCs will have partially or fully implemented free route airspace, which exceeds the target of 35 ACCs set by the Network Manager Performance plan. By 2019/2020, additional savings of between 60,000-75,000 NM a day can be expected, with subsequent fuel, environment and cost benefits.

By the end of 2019, most European airspace is expected to have implemented FRA, with all airspace having this type of operations by 2021/2022. This progress is a result of the very close cooperation between the Network Manager, the ANSPs, military partners and airspace users.

ACCs where FRA will be available by the end of 2021

ACCs where FRA will be available by the end of 2021.

Cross-border implementation has started and is already applicable or will soon be so in many parts of Europe, namely SAXFRA (Austria/Slovenia), SEENFRA (Romania/Hungary/Bulgaria), SEAFRA (Belgrade/Zagreb ACCs), MALTA/ITALY, NEFRA (Estonia/Latvia/Finland/Sweden/Denmark/Norway).

Europe is the first region in the world to have implemented a full FRA concept, although flight efficiency initiatives do exist in various forms in other parts of the world, such as North America and Australia.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

If you have any questions please consult our FAQs below, or contact us.

Are the air carriers technically prepared to perform direct routes in FRA? Are they consistently taking advantage of the benefits FRA offers?

Airspace users are now faced with a freedom of choice that has not existed during the past 50 years of airspace design and operation.  The move from route to airspace availability is offering significant opportunities and the airspace users are gradually adapting their flight planning systems to fully exploit the full potential of the concept. However it remains their decision as to whether they change their operation and realise the benefits now being offered.

Importantly, FRA provides the foundation and flexibility for meeting the demands of future airspace users over the next 50 years, such as civil and military RPAS, hypersonic transport, spaceplane operations to sub-orbit, wireless network balloons and airships.

Are there any parts of the airspace that are experiencing or could experience more issues as a result of FRA implementation? What has been or is being done about that?

FRA is now planned at Maastricht UAC, by DFS in Germany and NATS, UK  during the next five years, proof that the ANSPs concerned do not see any major issues that may prevent them from implementing the concept in one of the busiest pieces of airspace in the world.  The Network Manager works with those ANSPs to develop and implement appropriate solutions to further enhance operational performance.

Direct routes may also mean reduced flight times and therefore potentially higher aircraft utilization? Is not this going to cause more traffic at airports? Are airports prepared?

Yes there is the possibility of users conducting more rotations as the result of time saved using FRA, but the scale of this change will be relatively small in comparison with the overall need to improve flight efficiency and capacity of the European ATM system across Europe due to the increase in traffic and this is not related to FRA, but to the continuous development of air transport in Europe.

Do air carriers need any specific approval to conduct direct routes? Are there any special operational requirements?

No approval is required, current navigation capability fits with FRA operations.

Have ANSPs developed strategies to mitigate the potentially more difficult detection of conflicts that comes with FRA implementation?

Over the last 15 years ATC systems across Europe have been modernised to include conflict detection tools while using aircraft trajectories calculated by the ground system which are updated in real time as a flight progresses.  The good news is that in an FRA environment these trajectories are likely to be more stable than today’s operation and as a consequence will help improve predictability.  The tools help controllers identify conflicts well in advance of them occurring and are well suited for FRA operations.  Indeed one might say that the investments made in these new systems provide an additional return by enabling free route operations and a consequence an improvement in the quality of service provided by ANSPs. At the same time, the implementation of Free Route Airspace generates a much better spread of conflicts compared to the concentration of conflicts generated by the fixed route network.

How advanced is the status of FRA implementation in Europe?

Implementation is now ramping up.  More than 30 States have implementation plans for Free Route ranging from the initial step of implementing direct routes to the implementation of the full concept which permits airspace users to flight plan and fly a route according to their own business model.  It is expected that by the end of 2019 most of the European airspace would have implemented Free Route Airspace with all the airspace having this type of operations by 2021/2022.  This good progress is a result of the very close cooperation between the Network Manager, the ANSPs, the military partners and the airspace users. The Network Manager provides support to ANSPs in the form of airspace design, concept of operations, advice on aeronautical publication and finally the pre-validation of each new FRA environment to ensure airspace users are able to flight plan according to the concept.

Is there a risk for airspace around airports to become over crowded? What is being done in this respect?

This is not specifically FRA related – improvements have to be made in all aspects of ATM to accommodate future demand.  Nevertheless, specific airspace design solutions have been developed and documented by the Network Manager to ensure organised traffic flows around the airports. Airspace in TMAs will still be structured with dedicated arrival/departure routes.

What is the status of FRA implementation in other regions of the world? Are there any lessons learnt from the European experience?

Europe is the first region in the world having implemented a full FRA concept. However flight efficiency initiatives in various forms exist in other parts of the world i.e. North America and Australia.

Lessons learnt from the implementation so far have included the following:

  • Implementation on an incremental basis, starting with State implementation followed by cross border operations over a  region, when all neighbours are ready, is the best option for achieving full benefits.
  • Close coordination between airspace users, ANSP and the Network Manager has guaranteed the success of the implementation so far in terms of time and cost.
  • Most implementations have already exceeded that required by the SES regulation in 2022.

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