Transportation of Passengers

Making flights safer in future

Air traffic is set to double in the next 20 years, but there are ways to keep flying safe.


With international air traffic constantly increasing and congestion tipped to double over the next 20 years, stakeholders in air traffic management (ATM), such as pilots, airport operations centres, meteorology service providers and military operations centres, all rely more than ever on accurate, consistent and timely information. Given the growing number of flight operations, today's air traffic control systems could very soon reach their limits. The large number of legacy systems and applications is the main shortcoming. Developed for a variety of users over the years, these systems and applications feature customised communication protocols and interfaces which have to be managed and maintained independently of one another. There is hence a pressing need to modernise the systems currently in use. Specifically, this means:

1. Harmonising air traffic management

New systems are needed if system-wide interoperability is to improve and permit seamless information access and exchange. Critical information must be organised and delivered flexibly. To this end, the European Commission has launched the Single European Sky ATM Research Programme (SESAR). Its objective is to standardise and synchronise air traffic management throughout Europe. Such solutions as System Wide Information Management (SWIM) and the Airborne Collision Avoidance System (ACAS) are a step in this direction. Similar efforts to modernise air traffic management are also under way in the US, with the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen).

2. Open standards for information exchange

The concept of SWIM entails a complete change in information management. The present product-centric approach in which data are typically locked up in certain applications will make way for an open approach. All parties receive the same air traffic management information through standard data exchange formats. Web-based real-time systems encompass flight information, the flight trajectory in four dimensions, airport operations, the weather, the “state of the earth's atmosphere”, network management, information on air traffic flow and positioning information from radar or satellite navigation systems for surveillance purposes. Such a system initially benefits the airlines when planning their flights. If the level of ATM automation can also be increased, air traffic controllers will be able to focus more on monitoring and contingency planning. Human error – particularly in the form of data entry errors – could be reduced.

3. ACAS X, the next generation of on-board Airborne Collision Avoidance Systems

ACAS II has been mandatory for all passenger and cargo aircraft since 2003. This second generation in the evolution of the Airborne Collision Avoidance System automatically issues avoidance recommendations and directs pilots to climb, descend or level off. Approximately 25,000 aircraft are now equipped with this system worldwide. It has proved highly effective and has successfully prevented almost all critical near mid-air collisions encountered. However, it cannot detect aircraft without functioning transponder equipment. Moreover, the system depends on receiving correct information regarding the altitude of an aircraft on a potential collision course and on whether the pilots actually implement the recommended alternatives advised by the system. In addition, ACAS II is not compatible with new operational concepts aimed at meeting the requirements of both SESAR and NextGen. Too many alerts would be generated. ACAS X could help to improve the situation: scheduled for implementation no later than 2025, it will include both general aviation and unmanned aircraft. The system optimises the flow of traffic by making the best possible use of the prescribed minimum separation and spacing between aircraft. A new system logic and the integration of sensor data from several sources ensures timely identification of potential collision risks on both the vertical and the lateral plane and notifies the pilot accordingly. ACAS I and II rely solely on transponder-based surveillance, while ACAS X will also be able to use satellite-based navigation and Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) functionality, as well as radar, infrared and electro-optical surveillance systems. Air traffic controllers will additionally be able to see the alternative routes recommended by the system (resolution advisories) on their screens.

What it means from an insurance perspective

Efforts to improve air traffic safety in the context of SESAR and NextGen will also impact product liability. As automation increases, the number of human errors when controlling aircraft and monitoring airspace will dwindle; at the same time, however, it will also create new opportunities for human error elsewhere. Liability risks will change accordingly: system manufacturers' product liability is likely to increase, while that of the operators decreases. The insurance industry must respond to these changes and develop solutions mitigating the claims burden due to system malfunctions.

Future cover concepts must include the following aspects: 
- Damage to digital assets
- Non-physical business interruption and extra expenses
- Reputational risk 
– Cyber extortion 
– Privacy liability – IT liability
- Crisis management costs, including notification expenses, forensic expenses, public relations costs, and other assistance costs