Mark Cooper, VP of Technology at NAV CANADA, shares how air traffic control leaders are evolving from technology-dependent to technology-enabled.

Avenue Code: Tell us about your career path. How did you get to where you are today?

Mark Cooper: I’ve always had a passion for aviation, and I never doubted I’d end up working in the industry. Having said that, my career started at sea, working for a company called GEC-Marconi in the UK writing code for the Royal Navy command and control systems. I was fresh out of University, and going on sea trials on a Type 42 destroyer within weeks of starting work was an experience I’ll never forget.  

From GEC I moved to Lockheed Martin and was the Chief Engineer of the UK high-level airspace control center. This was my first paid interest in aviation, and it educated me quickly on the complexity involved in air traffic management. I spent eighteen very enjoyable years at Lockheed Martin and thought I would be there for life, but Lockheed Martin decided to focus on defense, and the IT business moved over to a company called Leidos.  

At that point, I decided it was time for a change and joined Deloitte as an Aviation Technology Partner. Deloitte is recognized as an audit and accounting firm, but the scale and depth of their technology business really surprised me. I spent three exceptional years working with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met, after which I moved from the UK to Canada.

AC: What drew you to joining NAV CANADA?

MC: It certainly wasn’t the Canadian winters! What was so exciting about NAV CANADA was the opportunity to transform one of the world-leading Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSP). Since I had worked as a supplier to ANSPs, I knew that NAV CANADA was very innovative. NAV CANADA is invested in leading aviation technology companies like Aireon and Searidge and was the first ANSP to privatize.

Since joining, I’ve realized that the strength of NAV CANADA is firmly in its employees, and I’ve been very impressed by their skills and their passion for the company. Despite the difficult time aviation has undergone recently, the people have always remained professional, and their commitment to help others above themselves never ceases to amaze me.

AC: What challenges and opportunities have arisen for NAV CANADA post COVID-19?

MC: COVID-19 has devastated the aviation industry globally. Since NAV CANADA is privatized, our income is generated by charging flights for our services, so we have experienced a significant drop in revenue. This has led to strict cost control measures, workforce reductions, and prioritizing only essential, safety-critical services. 

It’s all too easy to hide behind the pandemic, but at NAV CANADA, we’re doing the opposite - we’re using technology to reinvent the company, positioning ourselves to emerge stronger when air traffic resumes. Pre-pandemic, the NAV CANADA culture was very much office-based. Within days, we had to transition around 2,000 people to a remote work model (excepting live operational systems personnel), launch a remote software development environment, and start a migration to Microsoft Teams.

AC: Which digital initiatives are you prioritizing in 2021?

MC: Air Traffic Management always lags behind the mainstream industry, and rightly so, as we have far more stringent standards to adhere to and the testing is obviously extensive and time consuming. That said we absolutely need to pick up the pace and use technology to transform the operational services we provide.  At NAV CANADA we are actively exploring technologies such as automated testing to reduce the time taken to deploy products and upgrades. 

We have started putting plans in place to shift NAV CANADA from being technology-dependent to technology-enabled. Up until today, every ANSP globally has used technology to assist the human in the loop through safety checks or enabling capacity increases. Nothing changed fundamentally for decades because it didn’t need to. The pandemic has shown us that we must change. We must work with airlines and airports to enable a more efficient operation and continue to focus on improving safety.  

This shift toward being a technology-enabled company comes from something called Trajectory Based Operations (TBO). TBO is not a new concept, and in fact, ICAO (International Civil Aviation Agency) mandates that TBO be implemented by all ANSPs over the next decade.  

TBO is a paradigm shift the industry must make to utilize the exponential potential technology can play in our future operations. Fundamentally, TBO shifts us from an individual air traffic controller actively separating traffic for the duration of the flight to minimal interaction, provided the flight complies with an agreed contract between the airline and the ANSP. This results in gains for everyone: air traffic control becomes safer and less labor-intensive, airlines see fuel efficiency gains, passengers travel more efficient routes, and the environment is less polluted.  

Mark Cooper, photo courtesy of NAV CANADA.

AC: How does data play into your overall innovation strategy?

MC: Data is essential to our future operations. We collect a lot of data, and our goal is to use it to make evidence-based decisions using advanced data analytics and simulation engineering. It goes without saying that air traffic is incredibly complicated and there are hundreds of potential outcomes to every situation, so using data to generate insights and augment the user with decision support is an area of great interest to us. Essential to TBO is the collaboration with airlines and airports to deliver a full integration of flight information, which gives us all a single source of truth from which to make the optimal decision.

AC: What trends do you see within the aviation industry as a whole?

MC: The pace of change in aviation is now rapidly accelerating, because new entrants to aviation (such as drones) and the evolution of Unmanned Traffic Management are forcing the industry to evolve to safely adopt new airspace system users.

Digital hubs also promise much in terms of innovation. The ability to take several air traffic control towers and manage them using a digital solution from one central location facilitates service improvements and helps improve both operational flexibility and resilience.

Finally, you can’t talk about trends without talking about AI. AI certainly has a role to play in the future of aviation services, but due to the safety-critical nature of core operational systems, the role of AI in the near future will be in enabling the operation, not performing the operation.

AC: How can executives ensure their tech investments yield a high ROI?

MC: It’s important to remember that technology is an enabler. To achieve a high ROI, it must solve a real business problem. Also, the processes and controls we have around our investments are critical to maximizing returns. Without organizational buy-in and cultural alignment, technology will not deliver the anticipated ROI. Now more than ever, people need to be told why technological changes are being implemented and to understand the vision for the organization. 

AC: What is the key to successful strategic partnerships?

MC: To be successful, a strategic partnership must be mutually beneficial. “Profit” tends to be a dirty word to customers, but it’s absolutely essential that both parties are motivated and successful. Whilst working at Lockheed Martin, I was lucky enough to be involved with the Institute of Collaborative Working (ICW) in London, which pioneered a partnering standard that ultimately made its way to be ISO44001. 

This standard sets a great foundation for strategic partnerships in part by defining an exit strategy for partnership termination. It sounds counterintuitive, but having an exit plan drives deeper understanding of objectives, improves interactions, and ultimately strengthens the relationship. 

AC: What are you personally most passionate about in your career?

MC: That’s simple, it’s my team. I enjoy nothing more than seeing my employees be the best that they can be. Many of the people who work for me are more capable than I am, and I fully appreciate that my role is to help them continue to grow. 

AC: Thanks for your time today, Mark. It’s been fascinating to hear about how NAV CANADA and the aviation industry as a whole are evolving to be technology-enabled.


Alfredo Moro

Alfredo Moro is a Business Development Specialist at Avenue Code who is passionate about sales and loves to connect with clients all over the world! In his spare time, he enjoys watching the soccer games of his favorite team and cooking Brazilian BBQ in his backyard.

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