Will there still be airways in the sky?

15 May 2017

Free route airspace (FRA) is the concept that best symbolises the European Single Sky. By 2021, the European ATM network will be almost fully route-free, offering airlines more flight options for each city pair and helping improve airspace performance in the pivotal areas of capacity, efficiency and the environment.

FRA has already notched up a series of firsts for ATM concepts:

  1. It is the first major airspace change since the introduction of RVSM (reduced vertical separation minima) in January 2002. FRA is a change of similar magnitude: with it, we have changed the paradigm, moving from route availability to airspace availability.
  2. It is the first time that ATM has actually been ahead of user demand. Change in airspace development and design to date has generally been prompted by user pressure.
  3. FRA is one of those rare projects which have allowed air navigation service providers (ANSPs) to improve their quality of service at little or no cost. The replacement of ATM systems over the last 10 years has delivered ATC tools that underpin the FRA concept.
  4. For the first time ever, ANSPs can do significantly more than an EC Implementing Rule requires. FRA implementation is regional. It has been implemented well below FL305 - the minimum specified - and now applies right down to the lowest possible altitude at which aircraft can fly. Besides, most FRA initiatives have been implemented years before the EC’s deadline!
  5. Also for the first time, we have laid the foundations for network-wide operations that can be used by both current and future airspace users over the next 50 years. FRA is an important step in facilitating the SESAR Business Trajectory and 4D profiles.

Another big benefit: the implementation of Free Route Airspace makes for substantial savings in Europe’s ATM network at a time when the economic and environmental pressures on airlines are onerous.

Airlines now have the choice of filing a flight plan that best suits their own needs, subject to their capabilities and airspace capacity. FRA is fully systemised and the Network Manager Operations Centre (NMOC) is there to regulate airspace when needed through ATFCM measures.

Since the first FRA initiatives were implemented in 2008/2009 in Portugal, Ireland and Sweden, potential annual savings amount to millions of nautical miles, representing the equivalent of thousands of tons of fuel or thousands of tonnes of CO2.

Europe is leading this concept worldwide. The Network Manager (NM), in charge of FRA’s pan-European implementation, works in close collaboration with ANSPs. Once they are ready for FRA implementation, an extensive collaboration process is deployed on both local and sub-regional levels to ensure that the required network improvements are in place.

NM’s technical and operational support is provided when/if needed for these implementation phases:

  • concept development
  • airspace design
  • procedures
  • validation and simulations
  • publication
  • implementation
  • post-operations analysis.

FRA is at its most effective in cross-border operations, even in complex airspace, as aircraft are not constrained by specific crossing points placed on the borders between countries.

Here is a table of multi-ACC cross-border FRA initiatives either in place or under development:

Name State/ACCs
SAXFRA Austria/Slovenia
SEENFRA Romania/Hungary/Bulgaria
SEAFRA Belgrade/Zagreb ACCs
Malta/Italy  
NEFRA Estonia/Latvia/Finland/Sweden/Denmark/Norway
Borealis NEFAB + Denmark + Sweden FAB + UK/IRL FAB
SECSI Austria/Slovenia/Croatia/Bosnia and Herzegovina/Montenegro and Serbia
Tripartite Portugal (Lisboa ACC)/Spain (part of the Madrid ACC)/France (part of Brest ACC)

The European area is almost complete. By 2018, FRA will be operational H24 in 34 ACCs, most of them down to TMA level or the lowest flight level. By 2021, FRA will be deployed in almost all of Europe’s upper airspace.

Free Route Airspace implementation map - Summer 2017

Free route airspace implementation map for summer 2017, published in April 2017

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