Friday, 24 November 2023, 12:10
The control tower at Malaga's Costa del Sol Airport is rather unique within the Enaire network (Spain's publicly owned air traffic management company). It is one of the very few providing two services at the same facility. Firstly, operations are controlled from the top of the tower. Secondly, the approach of air traffic is managed from a radar-control room located at the building's base. There, all arrivals and departures are lined up to about four kilometres in altitude, covering a geographical area from south of Cordoba to the Alboran Sea.
"This is very unusual because normally the towers are at the airports, and approaches are managed from control centres," as is the case with Madrid, Barcelona and Palma.
"We, on the other hand, provide both services within the same facility, and that generates good synergy, because the same controller is enabled for both roles and that means we can increase capacity and operate more safely." This is how Raúl Delgado, head of Malaga's control tower and our host for the day, explained the arrangement during our visit to these facilities earlier this month.
The high operational capacity provided by simply having both services within the same building, together with record numbers of operations being recorded month after month, are the factors leading to the implementation of a whole new system for air traffic management under the name 'Midas Project'.
This reorganisation of Malaga's airspace means, on the technical side, a transition from conventional navigation methods based on radio signals via beacons to the more precise method known as area navigation (RNAV). RNAV will be mandatory throughout Europe by 2030, but Malaga is seven years ahead.
"We are implementing one of the most modern air traffic approach systems in Europe, well ahead of requirements."
A second issue is the environment, a priority for Enaire. With these new flight paths, aircraft manoeuvres are reduced, especially for take-offs, so fuel consumption and flight times are shorter.
As for arrivals, as they become more predictable due to the structure of the new approach system, descents and fuel consumption can also be optimised. All of this can be achieved within the same acoustic footprint to keep down noise levels in the immediate area surrounding the airfield.
In addition, the Arrival Manager system, AMAN (Advanced MANagement), is now in use, which provides automated sequencing support for the ATCOs (Air Traffic Control Officers) handling air traffic here at Malaga.
And how does this affect the travellers? What defines the capacity is the infrastructure available: the terminals, the security filters, the runways and aircraft positions on the ramp, among others. With the previous system, the maximum was 46 operations an hour.
Here is where we can see the first big leap in quality. "With the airspace we had until now, the controllers could withstand that capacity for a limited time, say one or two hours, but sustaining it proved difficult for us. With the new space, we will be able to maintain that level continuously," said Delgado. This is possible thanks to the fact that off-peak hours are being filled, giving rise to a more stable operations regime throughout the working day.
arrivals and departures per hour is the maximum the airport can deal with thanks to the Midas project.
Now, looking ahead, Midas means much more than workload management. The local airspace is now already designed to reach a maximum of 65 movements every hour - in other words, a landing or take-off in just under one minute. This allows for 19 more aircraft movements an hour - a 41 per cent increase.
"This means that all approach and take-off procedures in Malaga are prepared for this enormous increase," said Delgado.
However, this scenario will only be possible with a commitment from interested parties, society and enterprises to grow the required infrastructure on the ground (terminals, etc.) at the same rate. If all those plans were to come together, then the airport would achieve maximum capacity using both runways, and "the control tower is already prepared for that", said the tower chief.
The Midas Project has involved seven years of work by Enaire. Full rollout started this month with a transition period from the old modus operandi to the new. For air navigation purposes the principal new feature, among several, is the creation of a third approach sector (compared to the two that existed until now).
"The airspace is divided into more parts, so that each controller continues to manage the same number of aircraft as before but, by having three zones, capacity is increased."
Another benefit of this reorganisation is the use of RNAV. Area navigation is more resilient for aircraft approach because it is based on a combination that uses all available navigation aids (onboard, satellite-based or ground-based). Should one system fail, it simply uses the others.
"This allows you to generate as many points as you want when designing routes, giving lots of flexibility and, in addition, at each point you can encode what the passing altitude and airspeed should be for the plane."
The plane automatically adapts to these instructions without the controller having to give verbal orders to the pilot, as previously done. Separations between successive aircraft are smoothed out and the quantity of pilot-controller communications is lower, simplifying the workload of both. Thus, although several planes will coincide at varying altitudes over the same geographical point, Midas allows them to be lined up safely while cutting the distances travelled.
Malaga's aircraft approach service manages all arrivals and departures. For departures they take over the flight path from the moment the aircraft leaves the view of the control tower until it reaches an altitude of approximately four kilometres.
For arriving flights the controllers adjust the optimal distance between landings using ground-based navigation aids as reference points to make smooth, consecutive touchdowns. To achieve this, it is key that all aircraft comply with the published speed limits and crossing altitudes, so that they are always in position to complete their approach when authorised.
Arrival and departure operations at Malaga Airport are kept apart. Planes always land and take off into the wind. Since most days the wind here blows east, the preferred configuration is a southerly direction. In this case, runway 12 (the newer one) is used for landings and runway 13 for take-offs. In contrast, on days with a westerly wind or the warm terral wind, flights swap round to the northern configuration, (12 for take-offs; 13 to land).