Kolkata ATC gets an upgrade

Come Tuesday, flights to and from Kolkata are set to get a whole lot safer. The air traffic management team at Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport is taking a quantum technological leap, upgrading from a system that could, at best, be termed “outdated” to one that can be considered “state-of-the art”.
For years now, the air traffic controllers in Kolkata had been going about their job of maintaining safety during take-offs and landings with primary and secondary radars installed in 1997. According to an insider, the equipment has undergone several crucial tech transformations in the intervening years, “but Kolkata had to be content with outdated technology”. Significantly, ATCs in Delhi and Mumbai have undergone three modernizations since 1997.
For example, controllers now rely on data from unreliable radars and have to constantly communicate via VHF (very high frequency) radio and telephones with pilots and others air traffic controllers. The new centre they will start using from Tuesday, spread over 25,000 sq ft, nearly double the area of the existing centre, has an automated system, which integrates and displays input from multiple radars and automatically transmits air traffic data to adjoining ATCs. “This method“, the insider says, “can usher in smarter air traffic management so that the limited air space can be optimized“. At a basic level, it's all about safety for fliers, as the controllers would be getting access to multiple radars. There will be tangible benefits like smoother and shorter flights. Information on flights at airports will also be real-time.
“This is the biggest change in Kolkata's aviation history ,“ said Kolkata airport regional executive director S Bhaduri. “The new centre will be on a par with similar facilities in advanced countries. ATC, engineering, communication and other departments have worked in tandem to install the most modern system in an old building that has been refurbished,“ he added.
For starters, the Rs.50-crore new communication, navigation and surveillance (CNS) system will give controllers a sharper view of the sky and enhance the ability to track each plane. From two radars that could be viewed in isolation, controllers now have access to nine radars integrated to display the data on one screen. In addition, there will be information from eight automatic dependence surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) units that receives coordinates of aircraft through satellites. The system from Spanish firm Indra can integrate up to 32 radars, said a source. “In essence, controllers will get to see 400 nautical miles (740 km) and speak to aircraft located anywhere in that range from Tuesday instead of the limited reach of 200 nautical miles (370 km),” said Shantanu Ghosh, general manager of CNS, whose team was primarily responsible for the huge back-end integration.
The switch to the automated system will help flights to Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hong Kong, Dubai and Doha. Henceforth, these flights can take short cuts, reduce travel time, slash delays and save enough fuel to bring down ticket prices. There’s an environmental impact as well: planes burning less fuel means lower carbon emissions, said air traffic management general manager Chandan Sen. He added that the reduced stress in pilot-controller interface will also mean enhanced safety .
Once the potential of the new system is fully harnessed, the gap between two planes can reduce from 10 nautical miles (18.52 km) to as little as 3 nautical miles (5.56 km) as they approach for landing.
Thanks to this, the “runway efficiency“ will be doubled: from 30 landings and takeoffs in an hour, they can handle 60 with the new system in place. The Kolkata airport handles around 300 landings and take-offs and 1,500 over-flights daily.
Landings are also set to become much smoother, as controllers and pilots can plan the touchdown in advance. This can save as much as 300 kg of fuel per flight, said a source. The single biggest relief for controllers will be the smooth handover of flights from the Kolkata flight information region (FIR) to other neighbouring FIRs without having to relay the information over telephone. “Nearly 20 minutes before a flight moves from the Kolkata FIR to another one like Kathmandu or Dhaka, the information will be relayed over the system automatically,“ said R S Lahauria, joint general manager of standardization and quality management system, Airports Authority of India. “We will have to only inform Yangon over telephone till it too is equipped to receive the automated message,” he added. The air space in the Kolkata FIR is also set to undergo a sea change, said the source.
The tower that controls aircraft movement from ground till 2,000 ft will see the number of sectors or divisions in that particular air space go up from two to six. Beyond tower control, approach control takes over till 10,500 ft. Sectors in approach will increase from two to seven. The approach control is followed by area control that monitors and regulates flights till 46,000 ft. The area control will now be split into two vertical segments: lower area control that regulates flights till 25,500 ft and upper area control till 46,000 ft. The lower and upper area control that now has four sectors can be split into 12.
“Greater number of sectors means controllers can concentrate on lesser air space and therefore have greater focus on the flights in that particular sector. This will reduce stress and enhance safety ,“ said ATC guild regional secretary Saugata Pramanik.
Initially, though, it is being felt that stress may shoot up exponentially as controllers get an “overdose“ of information. Once they get used to working live on the new system, the stress will drop. Around 200 controllers have been trained for 40 hours each on the new system during the trial phase.
The airspace realignment will bring in operational flexibility , enabling effective use of air traffic controllers, said the source. When traffic increases in a sector, it can be bifurcated or divided into multiple sectors. When traffic drops, two or more sectors can be merged or consolidated.
Apart from providing direct routing, there will be less VHF congestion, less controller overload and seamless transfer from one ATC to another. For example, from the present Kolkata-Varanasi-Delhi, the routing henceforth will be direct to Delhi with no interchange at Varanasi, the source added.
An air traffic control veteran explained that controllers would have “greater situational awareness of aircraft“ in the sky . With controllers not required to speak 20-30 times a minute, they will get more time to study the situation and plan accordingly .
When voice communication does take place between pilots and the ATC, it will be clearer, as a new system with voice over internet protocol (VOIP) technology will prevent garbling of messages from pilots that happens when more than one pilot speaks at the same time. Technology apart, the ergonomics of the centre and the workplace have also undergone a dramatic upgrade, with monitors, desks, chairs and all communication aid positioned in a way that “enhances ease of use and reduces fatigue“, the source said.
For maintenance engineers, the switch over to new radar technology and the automated system is a huge relief. “ Automation has given controllers access to multiple radars. That means there will always be backup available should one or even two radars fail. Since the radar feed is now through dual link, the chances of failure are anyway remote. New radars also mean that there would be no maintenance worries for the next six-seven years,“ said CNS Guild secretary Pinaki Banerjee.
Though the ultra-modern centre is now fully operational, having successfully completed trials, the older one will continue to function till the Directorate General of Civil Aviation certifies the new facility as capable of independent operation, said sources.
Once that happens, the obsolete facility will be shut down forever.

No comments: