Air Navigation Commission visits the Azores
After a year and a half of life under COVID-19, the ANC decided to bring back the traditional Annual Study Visit, an event taking place since 2009 but interrupted last year due to the pandemic. The many restrictions still affecting international travel were considered and the decision was to venture into the middle of the Atlantic to visit the heart of Santa Maria FIR, in the Azorean island that gives it the name.
The COVID19 pandemic continues to restrict the normal life of many people around the globe, and the ICAO Air Navigation Commission is no exception. However, we have adapted our working methods to the past and current pandemic-related restrictions and, so far, we have managed to continue to deliver the products expected from us without any major disruption.
Aside of its work programme, one of the yearly events that the ANC has been organizing for more than 10 years is the ANC Study Trip, an event that is also an opportunity for some team building. Because of the COVID19 pandemic, we had to postpone the 2020 edition, which would have taken us to the EUR Region (Germany, Belgium and Morocco) for a very comprehensive aviation programme. Early this year, it became clear that, once again, it would not be possible to make this happen, so we decided to try to organize a smaller, less complex and, thus, more feasible trip, since we all agreed that it was time to get back to a certain “normal” life. The goal was to pass a positive message of “return to travelling by air” (after all, ICAO exists to support International Civil Aviation), and to use this opportunity to have a Team Building Exercise, which is even more important in the current context.
After establishing some contacts, following an invitation from ANAC (the Civil Aviation Authority of Portugal), and with the support from NAV Portugal (The PT ANSP), I took on the challenge of organizing a Study Trip to the Island of Santa Maria (Azores), the Heart of Santa Maria FIR, in the NAT Region, one of the two Flight Information Regions under the responsibility of Portugal.
After various exploratory contacts made during the months of April and May, we put together a programme for this ANC Study Visit, which would take us to the islands of São Miguel and Santa Maria, from 28 August to 4 September, with the following itinerary:
- 28AUG: flights from Montreal to Ponta Delgada (S.Miguel island), via Toronto;
- 29 to 31AUG: cultural visit to S. Miguel island;
- 1 to 3 SEP: study and cultural visit to Santa Maria island, as follows:
- Edisoft (Santa Maria Teleport);
- NAV Portugal (Santa Maria Oceanic Control Centre);
- SATA Azores Airlines (Azores Aeronautical Training Centre);
- 4SEP: return flights to Montreal, via Ponta Delgada and Toronto.
The ANC group that we managed to put together was composed of six Commissioners, three Observers from States and Industry and a Member of the ICAO Secretariat. The group included some spouses, in a total of 18 people, including my predecessor in the ANC, Christian Schulthess, who joined us with his wife from Switzerland.
At this point, it is only fair to mention the outstanding support we had in the logistic arrangements, from the following entities:
- SATA Azores Airlines, for the flights;
- Hotel Marina Atlântico, for the accommodation in S. Miguel island;
- InAzores Tours & Transfers, for the three-day cultural programme in S. Miguel;
- Hotel Santa Maria, for the accommodation in Santa Maria Island.
São Miguel island
The first three days were dedicated to discover the unique culture and landscape of São Miguel, the largest of the nine Azorean islands. Thanks to a comprehensive programme prepared for us by InAzores (and to our guide Margarida), we enjoyed a quite comprehensive tour of the island, visiting some of the most iconic landmarks, and tasted some of the delicacies the Azores have to offer. We started by visiting the western part of the island, passing by Lagoa das Sete Cidades (an iconic landscape no one can miss) and ended in one of the many pineapple greenhouses.
On our second day in São Miguel, Luis Ribeiro (DG ANAC) joined us for lunch in Furnas, a meal which was cooked in the sulphur pits of an active volcano.
We continued the day by tasting the various flavours of the water from the many fountains around the village. The visit to Furnas could not finish without a dip in the hot water of the lake at Park Terra Nostra.
Back to Ponta Delgada, we were hosted by ANAC for a dinner at “Restaurante Alcides” in Ponta Delgada, where we had an opportunity to meet with Luis and with Francisco Gil (from the Visit Azoresthe local government agency who promotes the region worldwide) who was pivotal in the success of the visit to the islands.
The third day was dedicated to a guided walk around Ponta Delgada, the capital city, and learn about the history and the architecture of its centuries old centre.
Before heading to the airport, we still had time to see another breathtaking view, at Lagoa do Fogo (Fire Lake), in the centre of the island.
Santa Maria island
At the end of the 3rd day we hopped to Santa Maria island with SATA Air Açores to start the second part of the visit, which included the aeronautical and space programme, kindly coordinated by José de Sousa (Director of Operations of the Atlantic – NAV Portugal).
The first visit was to Edisoft's “Santa Maria Teleport”, where we were hosted by a group of eight passionate young engineers (all born on the island) who showed us around the facilities and briefed us on the past and current local developments of the company.
One of the main local activities of the company is an operational service to EMSA (European Maritime Safety Agency), analysing satellite imagery for oil spill detection, covering a vast area of the Atlantic Ocean and part of the Mediterranean Sea. We were also informed about the promising future of space related activities expected to develop in the future in the Azores, focused mainly in Santa Maria.
The second day was dedicated to NAV Portugal’s Oceanic Control Centre, co-located with the company’s headquarters in the Azores. The visit included a presentation about the past and present of Oceanic Control in Santa Maria (which dates back to the early years of ICAO), followed by demonstrations of the capabilities of the ATM System currently used, both for Oceanic and Terminal Area Control. We finished the tour of the facilities by visiting the newly renovated Operations Room, in the final stages of its preparation for entry in service soon.
It should be mentioned that on the 20th of September, the presentation as well as the demonstration of the capabilities of the ATM System were presented to ICAO, from Santa Maria, to the ANC Talks of that day, by invitation of the President of the ANC during the visit. The session had quite a large attendance of ANC, Council and ICAO technical staff.
Once in service, this new infrastructure will represent a significant improvement in the working conditions for the operational staff, as well as setting the scene for next decades of continuous development of the service provision in a very demanding oceanic environment.
The last day on the island was dedicated to SATA Azores Airlines/Air Açores, with a visit to its "Aeronautical Training Centre of the Azores" (CFAA). Again, a pleasant surprise to see such an interesting aviation training facility on this island, a strategic decision of the company to take advantage of the availability of space and of the quietness of the location, to keep the focus of the trainees on the training as much as possible. Located 5 minutes walk from the airport and from Hotel Santa Maria, it provides perfect conditions for successful training courses for cabin crew and other aviation professionals (Fire Fighters, Security Staff, and others).
We ended the stay with a dinner hosted by NAV Portugal at our Hotel Santa Maria, where we had the opportunity to thank our hosts for the hospitality and the extra mile they went to make our visit one to be well remembered.
It should be mentioned that all the procedures for protection from COVID-19 were applied from the first to the last day, by the group and by all the people and places we visited or means of transport we travelled in. There were specific rules in place for arriving visitors and for inter-island travelling, as well as in every place open to the public. A special mention has to be made regarding the outstanding assistance given to the group by the various local COVID-19 testing facilities. The strict adherence to the rules combined with the high vaccination rate in the country made it so that all the islands had been declared as “low risk” (S. Miguel was the last island to achieve that status, soon after our departure). Needless to say, nothing to report regarding health and safety.
In a nutshell, this trip to one of the ABIS Member States will forever be remembered by all the participants as a memorable one, not only because it was the first one after the COVID-19 pandemic started, but also for the wonderful mix of Aviation and Culture, with a nice touch of Team Building.
Montreal, October 2021, Written by Albano Coutinho