Red, amber or green it was fantastic to be back face-to-face in Madrid, says Maja Marciniak.

For the first time since March 2019 representatives of the air traffic management industry had the opportunity to come together and discuss their challenges in a face-to-face set up at the World ATM Congress (WAC) in Madrid. The event was significantly different to what we have seen and experienced in the past. It was quieter than in 2019, but significantly busier than what I had expected. There was clear excitement in the air, with everyone happy to be seeing friends and colleagues (also those who we’ve only met virtually) in “the real world”. Going in, I thought that Covid restrictions would mean that there would not be any handshaking, hugging, and that social distancing would be visible everywhere. However, the organisers introduced a colour scheme for personal contact preference – a green sticker on the name badge meant that one is happy to shake hands, yellow meant that fist pumps were welcome and red meant “no physical contact please”. To my great surprise, the vast majority of attendees chose the green sticker, so handshakes were extremely common (and using hand sanitiser was hence equally common!). The one big thing that was missed was the lack of drinks and snacks on stands, which resulted in the event feeling slightly more formal than what I remember from previous years.

All in all, the congress was very well attended. I personally had numerous meetings with employees of air navigation service providers, various aviation organisations, system suppliers and a range of service provider companies. There was a common feeling that the world is now restarting, but at the same time that the financial impact of Covid has, and will continue to have, an impact on the innovation and investment seen in the industry.

The most notable absentees were EUROCONTROL (apart from a small delegation of representatives), the European Commission and associated bodies. In the past we have been used to seeing a large “European Village” which has tended to be the centre of discussions and talks on the future of the industry, progress on the implementation of regulation and European-wide ambitions for the future. This year, discussions were more dispersed, and mostly took place on stands and at the various speaking arenas, focusing more on solutions.

While there were numerous ANSPs who did attend the congress, it was my perception that compared to 2019, only a handful had their own stands. This is a clear impact of Covid – ANSPs have had to look for a wide range of cost reductions, small and large, and exhibiting at WAC does not fall into an obvious category of ‘essential expenditure’. Nonetheless, in the past when ANSPs had their own stands they used them to promote their activities, display their new solutions. This in turn had a propelling effect on European Aviation and also was a route to the commercialisation of ANSP activities. While in the short term I understand that cost reductions are necessary, I do hope that in the longer term we go back to having a more varied set of stands, further driving innovation and the exchange of ideas.

On the topic of exchanging ideas though, the 2021 WAC saw the establishment of no less than seven (!) different speaking arenas and theatres, which over the three days hosted presentations and discussions on everything from new tech and trial results to coping with traffic volatility and sharing strategic directions. On Tuesday, my colleague Isabel Franke-Chaudet delivered a well-attended presentation on The Impact of Standardisation on the ADSP Promise. The next day it was Simone Rozzi’s turn to take to the podium, discussing The Bottom Line on Human Factors Engineering in ATM Change. While I was unable to attend all of the talks that I wanted to, the ones I found particularly interesting related to the operations challenges expected in the post Covid world, which included (but was not limited to) environmental considerations and traffic volatility issues.

To illustrate the trending themes we took a look at the >100 presentations taking place across five of the seven theatres that were covering general ATM topics and created a tag cloud from the presentation titles:

It’s clear that digitalisation, safety and security, networks, towers, drones and U-space were all hot topics in the theatres – as they were on the Egis stand. Colleagues tell me they had some fantastic discussions about new tech developments and trials support, but also that the ‘business end’ was important, with procurement plans, cost-benefit analyses and new collaborations on the table. Business also had a truly global flavour, with new contacts made across several African nations.

The one big new area of the congress was the Expodronica exhibition, which focused on showcasing the solutions in providing and managing unmanned aviation services. This part of the hall felt far more casual, but also very vibrant. Compared to the ATM section, where there were many large stands, the drones exhibition had a larger number of small stands, as one would expect from a segment where there is a lot of innovation and many start-ups. There was one arena dedicated to civil unmanned aviation discussions, and whenever I passed by, there were dozens of people sitting and listening carefully to the presentations and panels. Indeed, Egis colleagues were also there helping EUSPA’s MyGalileoDrone competition semi-finalists to promote their winning ideas, and prepare for a live flying demonstration on the Thursday over at Cuatro Vientos Airport a few miles away. Unmanned aviation is clearly the future, and we need to be ready to integrate it with the existing ATM landscape. I am glad to see that WAC became a platform to facilitate and contribute to this change.

All in all, I am extremely pleased to have attended WAC this year. While meetings over Zoom, Teams and Skype “work”, nothing can compare with a face-to-face conversation over a cup of coffee. Organised video conferences tend to have a well-defined purpose and agenda. Face-to-face meetings allow us to easily exchange findings and learn from one another. Being able to simply have an open conversation and share experiences, inspires one another. Chance meetings in the event corridors can spark new associations. The technology is great, but at WAC it became crystal clear that face-to-face meetings will continue in the future, and are pivotal to ensure future industry-wide collaboration.

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