STATE YOUR CASE | ATNS
by Andrew Ngozo
Creating and Adding Value in the Aerospace Sector
Armed with a R25-million cheque to pay salaries for its 300 employees in 1993, the then R300-million company came into being. Many operational months later, Air Traffic and Navigation Services (ATNS) has a R1.8-billion asset base and a workforce of more than 1 000 employees. Apart from achieving this exponential growth in a highly competitive aerospace sector, ATNS is one of the most respected voices in this high-technology and vital sector in Africa and abroad. Under the capable leadership of Thabani Mthiyane, the chief executive officer (CEO) of ATNS, the company ensures that today’s work will benefit generations to come – and, what is more, it remains a good story to tell for the Department of Transport, which is the sole shareholder.
According to Mthiyane, ATNS, which, back in 1993, was a military entity but is now a true civilian operation, has never gone back to the government to ask for hand-outs but has created and added value to the industry, Africa and the global air traffic space. The mandate of ATNS, which is responsible for 10% of the world’s airspace, “Is to cater for any aeroplane that flies within approximately 22-million km2, which is equivalent to South Africa’s land space. Anything from South Africa to halfway towards Australia and halfway to Brazil and the South Pole is under our jurisdiction,” says Mthiyane. He adds that, along the 21-year journey, they have created skills capacity for engineers, air traffic controllers and support staff for the industry. “We believe we are far ahead of our time, as, just as we have been self-sustaining since 1993, we will continue to be so into the future.”
ATNS Speaks and the World Listens
Any other organisation in this highly specialised sector would still be struggling to have its voice heard among its peers. But this is not the case for this globally recognised industry leader that has been called on to participate in a number of influential forums in the region. Under Mthiyane’s stewardship, ATNS chairs the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO) Africa Region, the global voice of companies that provide air traffic control and which represents the interests of Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) worldwide. “This is testimony to the faith our peers have in what we do and the services we provide,” Mthiyane points out. Africa has, across its industries and other facets, had to struggle to gain the necessary recognition, but, through ATNS, has managed to address safety issues on the continent, where a satellite network has been deployed that countries use to communicate and transfer data among themselves. “We manage this network that runs from South Africa to Cairo in Egypt, to Yemen in Saudi Arabia. It has been seen as a first in the world and is recognised as a solution in other areas of the globe.”
Mthiyane shares that there are other initiatives that show that the continent has, through South Africa, the skills and capability from a technological point of view. “Just before the 2010 Soccer World Cup, one of our projects looked at optimising the air traffic flow of aircraft in South Africa. It is a sophisticated system and another world first that has won several accolades, as we contributed immensely to environmental sustainability by minimising the amount of fuel burn by aircraft. We hope that we will continue along these innovation lines to give the world state-of-the-art and relevant air traffic navigation solutions.” A sneak peek into ATNS future cannot be divorced from that of South Africa and the world, claims Mthiyane, because South Africa, on the one hand, has the National Development Plan and the global air traffic and navigation industry, and, on the other, has resolutions/declarations from the 38th Assembly in Montreal. Both have set 2030 as the target year for delivery.
Mthiyane continues: “As an organisation, we are looking at both sides with the intention of merging the two areas. On the global front, we ask ourselves: how do we continue to offer services in a manner that meets global standards while addressing the local challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment. By looking at both, we are not necessarily focusing on five-year strategies but on macro strategies and ask what we need to do in the next half decade in order to meet the demands of the next 10 to 15 years. There are a number of changes in this regard, but the main one is to look at how we change the concept of operation.” Today’s concept was designed about three decades ago and it has to be revised, taking into consideration that “technology is moving along so rapidly” and that the present challenges have to be factored in. According to Mthiyane, the air traffic management space has a 7- to 10-year planning horizon, but planning has to commence today in the human resources areas, because ATNS needs to know what skills it will require in five years’ time. He also notes: “If we want to meet tomorrow’s demand, we need to start training today in order to harness the skills factor and technological advancement. We need to have the foresight to be able to see beyond 10 years from now and address today’s issues with an understanding of the future. In our environment, we always work five years ahead, and the world is likely to see our work in the near future. Coincidentally, we are working on issues that were dealt with a few years ago and have to keep that momentum going into the future.”
At the Heart of the Strategic Agenda
According to Dumisani Sangweni, Acting Executive: Commercial Services at ATNS, there are three components at the heart of the organisation’s strategic agenda: knowledge management, innovation and technology. In one way or another, the three are reflected in the strategic business concept which is ATNS’s driving force. “One of the key tenets of the strategy is that we must have a robust communication platform with internal and external stakeholders. We have enabled this by establishing a knowledge management centre within the technology area. This knowledge function helps in the collection and analysis of information for the benefit of our strategic initiatives and programmes,” says Sangweni. He reveals that this particular unit is a fairly new one, being only a few years old, and is still in the process of being equipped with staff, with ATNS continuing to resource it in order to get to the level at which the unit wants to operate.
To drive the innovation end of ATNS business, Sangweni says the 3rd Annual AVI Afrique Summit was held in October 2014. “It was for us as an industry player to bring together thought leaders, researchers and technology experts from various strata of aviation and beyond. The intention was to use this forum to better help drive efficiencies in our area and the broader transport sector,” he notes. The Summit has grown from strength to strength and ATNS has been adding new elements every year. He says: “It [the Summit] is an example of a flagship initiative that is helping us drive the innovation pillar of our strategic objectives. This is important, because we are in a technologically driven environment where technology dictates the way in which we operate, as well as the efficiencies that allow us to realise the best that we can deliver. Furthermore, we are focused on delivering an optimal air traffic solution to our clients and users of our services. We will continue to invest in, and drive, other technology and innovation programmes and agendas as we move along.
“Technology is very closely linked and plays a very pivotal role in our business. However, more than merely delivering a service, we need adequate and properly trained human resources, while utilising a combination of solutions in the navigation and surveillance areas in order for us to carry through our mandate, which is to provide efficient air traffic management services within the borders of South Africa,” explains Sangweni. Apart from the human-resource capabilities, ATNS provides its technological expertise to the African continent, which also includes the Indian Ocean region. “This is another vital area, because, where we can, we help our African counterparts and combine our collective strengths to improve the overall safety and integrity of air traffic management solutions in the African region,” he says. For example, in a project started about a decade ago, ATNS manages a communication network for various African regions, which has contributed immensely to improving safety and Africa’s ability to link various air traffic service units through technology. “We also offer training in various disciplines in air traffic services, which include engineering and safety management courses through our centre in South Africa. In infrastructure terms, this is a big area, because we are endeavouring to improve the continent’s manpower capabilities.” Sangweni also indicates that safety is a huge problem in Africa, a continent that is seen to have the worst safety record when benchmarked against global standards. “However, our work has gained momentum in this regard and has done a lot to ensure South Africa’s, and Africa’s, competitiveness in the aerospace sector.”
Meeting Demands of High-level Airspace Management
Richard Madlala, Programme Director at ATNS, believes that the company has operated and continues to operate, in an environment where it is required to lead the demand for air traffic capacity, services and technology as articulated by the stakeholders within the South African aviation sector.
“The current Air Traffic management (ATM) system within the Operations environment to date was commissioned in 2004. This system was designed to have a midlife upgrade around 2011 to cover and provision for hardware obsolescence and new technology platforms that would support new desired operational functionalities and regulatory requirements. However, due to the implementation of the 2010 Soccer World Cup, such a major upgrade could not be planned and accommodated in line with a national event at the scale of the World Cup 2010,” he says.
Madlala elaborates that, during this period (during the 2010 SWC), ATNS took the opportunity to scan the markets and source an ATM development company to provide for ATNS current and future ATM requirements. Hence, ATNS is currently in the process through the Collaborative ATNS Air Traffic System (CAATS Programme) that will see the current ATM system at eight of the ATNS controlled airports, South African Air Force (SAAF) observer positions including the training simulator at the Aviation Training Academy, being replaced with the latest open architecture technologies designed to support operations for the next 15 operational years, thereby ensuring operational sustainability and for operational sustainability and ensuring latest functionalities.
In explaining the CAATS programme, Madlala indicates that the purpose of this programme is to replace the legacy ATNS national ATM system with the state-of-the-art Air Traffic Management system to ensure that ATNS as service provider meets the demands of high level airspace management, operational efficiency through the use of advanced technologies as well as future challenges of scalability and capacity creation. As part of this deployment, extensive training and technology transfer will be undertaken to ensure development of local skills for the development and maintenance of air traffic and management systems.
The benefits of this new system acquisition will enable ATNS to deliver Air Traffic Services through situational awareness of traffic in its airspace, as well as leverage on the opportunity of:-
a. Improved Value for Money when compared to the existing legacy system
b. An optimised 15 year support model that will enable capacity building and ensure ATNS skills are in line with industry needs and requirements
c. Deployment of leading technology
d. Operational efficiency – air traffic is better handled and managed
Although the Programme was contracted in early 2013 and, up to now, has involved finalising the programme planning and design phase for the ATM system and the associated and subordinated systems, there have been many achievements. Madlala lists a number of such achievements to date. These include:
Formulation of the Programme team and secondment of the CAATS Director
Finalised System Design and interfacing baseline to all the other interconnected systems
Finalising the Master Programme schedule taking into account the supportability of the current system
Subordinating all the other dependent works and deployments with the CAATS Programme schedule
Deploying the training platforms at both the Johannesburg and Cape Town System Support Suites (SSS) to facilitate the training if the ATC is training
Deployment of the Technical Platform to facilitate training of the Technical and Specialist (Technical and Operational) Personnel.
Proceeding with the ATC hall preparations and installations in Cape Town to begin the Southern Region installations.
Starting with the construction of the modular building for the ATA training simulator.
From the aforegoing, it is clear that ATNS is an entity that has done well among its peers and looks set to achieve more in the future. With such initiatives as the CAATS Programme and other strategic initiatives, the future is the company’s to have. Visit the company’s web-site to find out more about the ‘goings on’ at ATNS.