European Free Route Airspace (FRA) to Provide Cost Savings and Benefits to All Airspace Users

This post will cover European Free Route Airspace changes through 2021.
European airspace is gradually heading away from classical airspace design with airways towards a route-free network that provides freedom of choice for operators. Similar flight efficiency initiatives exist in different parts of the world; however, Europe was the first region to implement a full Free Route Airspace (FRA) concept under the Single European Sky (SES) framework. Forecasting indicates air traffic levels are expected to double by 2020. The SES plans to accommodate this growth with common rules and procedural implementations like the FRA. 

What is Free Route Airspace (FRA)?

Eurocontrol defines the Free Route Airspace (FRA) as a specified airspace where operators can freely plan a route between defined entry and exit points, either directly or through intermediate waypoints, without reference to the ATS route network, subject to airspace availability. The Eurocontrol Network Manager is responsible for improving the performance of the European aviation network. Flights will still remain subject to air traffic control within this airspace.

FRA Implementation

The Eurocontrol Network Manager has coordinated the Free Route Airspace implementation since 2008. Close cooperation between the Eurocontrol Network Manager, the ANSPs (Air Navigation Service Providers), Military partners and airspace users have enabled the quick development of FRAs. FRA implementation is a step-by-step process where the states start implementing direct routes (DCT) and then gradually expand to the full Free Route Airspace concept. 

  • Step 1: Limited DCT Implementation – Night DCTs
  • Step 2: Comprehensive DCT Implementation – Night and/or Weekend DCTs
  • Step 3: Comprehensive DCT Implementation – Partial 24h DCTs
  • Step 4: Comprehensive DCT Implementation – 24h DCTs
  • Step 5: Full FRA Implementation – Night
  • Step 6: Full FRA Implementation

FRA Coverage

Currently, more than 30 states have implementation plans for different stages and the Free Route Airspace is steadily expanding through many cross-border initiatives and implementations. Eurocontrol is planning to have most of the European airspace covered by the end of 2019 and all of the European airspace by the end of 2021 or 2022. 

Coverage maps are highlighted below in Figures 1 and 2.

Figure 1:

Free Route Airspace in 2018

Figure 1 - Free Route Airspace in 2018

Figure 2:

Free Route Airspace in 2022

Figure 2 - Free Route Airspace in 2022

Requirements for Operators

No specific approval is required to plan direct routes and there are no special operational requirements. The FRA concept is compatible with the current navigation capability. Flight Planning Systems are gradually adapting to fully exploit the full potential of the FRA concept. 

Benefits for All Users

Eurocontrol foresees the FRA concept to improve overall airspace efficiency and capacity resulting in environmental and cost benefits. Current estimations predict savings of 60.000 – 75.000 NM per day. Mutual benefits are expected for both Operators and for Air Traffic Management.

Benefits for Operators

  • Savings in distance
  • Reduced flight times
  • Reduced fuel consumption
  • Reduced emissions 

Benefits for Air Traffic Management

  • More stable aircraft trajectories which improve the compatibility and conflict predictability.
  • Better spread of conflicts vs. current trend of concentration of conflicts with the fixed route network.

Impacts for Airports

While the en-route airspace is experiencing a major change the Airport Terminal Areas (TMA) will remain structured with dedicated arrival and departure routes. Eurocontrol will ensure organized traffic flows around the airports with specific airspace design solutions. The improved en-route capacity is forecast to increase the overall traffic at the airports. This will in turn require enhanced coordination and regulation measures, and may lead to further interest to exploit and develop regional airports.

Northern and Central Europe FRA Examples

Here is an example of FRA application in Northern Europe (NEFAB) which extends North of Latvia, covering Norway and Finland:
This FRA initiative in Central Europe (MUAC) was broken out into three phases for implementation:

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