An Opportunity We Should not Miss!

On 20-01-2012, in The future is now, by steve

I was talking to an old time, well respected colleague the other day discussing his view that instead of forcing the industry to implement yet another expensive capability, full use should be made of what was already there… Once the benefits start to accrue, airspace users would be much more inclined to take the extra steps and accept the costs associated with the extra functionality (assuming of course that there was a business case for it). This discussion was in the context of basic PBN and the addition or not of things like Constant Radius Turns in en-route airspace.

Although I have always preferred a more all-out approach, his pragmatic views make perfect sense and is also something airline bean-counters are likely to accept more readily. Investing in speculative functionality when the existing stuff sits idle most of the time is difficult to justify. Of course focusing mainly on use-what-is-already-there-first will not speed up progress but will make the simpler things happen with a higher degree of probability. Aim for too much, and nothing happens. I hate to admit it, but he is right…

Having given credit where credit is due, my incorrigible drive for wanting the whole thing kept chewing my soul. There was something here that we could turn to our advantage. But what was it exactly?

Then I remembered… The thousands of A320NEOs and Boeing 737MAXs. Airlines have ordered these more fuel efficient versions of the old favorites to basically replace a large part of their fleets almost overnight. Now if only those new babies could come with all kinds of goodies fitted right from the start…

What are we talking about? From an air traffic management perspective, there are three items that I would have on my wish list: air/ground digital link and CPDLC, ADS-B in and out and a full set of PBN capabilities.

I can almost hear opponents shouting: with those new versions not due for another three years or so, what technology should the manufacturers use for ADS-B for instance? Stay with Mode S Extended Squitter or go for something else? But what? Would it not be better to wait until the technology debate settles? We have of course heard this in the past. Waiting is equivalent to doing nothing and missing the boat. We have also seen that in the past… and suffer the consequences in the present day.

No Sire, this time we should be smarter.

For ADS-B and air/ground digital link we do have mature technologies in the form of Mode-S Extended Squitter and VDL Mode 2. The PBN package is there, almost complete… Possibly they are not the best and for the longer term we will definitely need something better. But if we consider how many years (decades…) it took to settle on these two imperfect technologies we have to stop for a moment and think about how long it would take to come up with better replacements. Will they be there by around 2015 when the re-engined aircraft start to fly? There is no real reason to believe that getting to a new, approved system would take less in the future than it did in the past, the industry must ponder the question: is it not the best bet (and commercially also the most acceptable) decision to request that the new Airbus and Boeing replacements be equipped with ADS-B in/out and air/ground digital link using Mode S Extended Squitter and VDL Mode 2 and CPDLC as we know them to-day (or rather, as they may evolve in the next two years) so that they come from the factory with these capabilities as standard. Sure, this would affect the price-tag but forward fit, especially if done at manufacture and compared to the total price of the aircraft, is relatively modest. The extra cost could also be kept low in view of the very large number of aircraft to be outfitted, a truly unique opportunity.

So what would such a bold step bring us?

Almost overnight, a very substantial part of the medium-haul fleet would be equipped to do most of what the future ATM system will want and equipping the rest of the fleet would be much less of a daunting task.

In this scenario, both my colleague and I would see our respective approaches come to fruition and without breaking the bank too.

In 5 years’ time we could advise without hesitation: first use what is already on the plane!

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  1. alex1 says:

    Steve,

    I suspect I may be the ‘old time well respected colleague’ quoted above, and am duly flattered. You have as usual got to the heart of what I was thinking, though I would add I was also making a plea for action from the ANSPs. They have got away too long with declaring ‘That’s the way we’ll do it, that’s what you need to fit, and if you don’t like it, we will slap on a mandate.’ Only there is of course no guarantee that once the mandate takes effect, the ANSPs will fulfil their share of the bargain. In your blog this weekend you note the question asked in the Euro Parliament asking why it will have taken 17 years from the ES mandate before ANSPs are actually required to make use of the functionality (let alone provide any benefit…). It is high time they showed that they can be trusted. Taking what capabilities aircraft currently have and producing tangible benefits from them would be a very good start. There is also the minor issue of glacial ‘official’ recognition of these on board capabilities, which deserves a blog by itself. Later, maybe

  2. Phil Hogge says:

    I fully endorse what Steve has written and what Alex1 has said above. I remember well, when I was with IATA, the arguments we had over the Mode S mandate in the late 1990s. It is absolutely unnacceptable that airlines should be forced to fit expensive avionics only to find that there are no benefits because those same ANSPs who were demanding the airborne equipment made no use of it.

    There is a wealth of useful information already available from aircraft that are flying now and which could be used be used for ATM purposes, but it isn’t! What an incredible waste of resources. If one is to achieve benefits the air/ground systems MUST develop in parallel.

    I hope the questions in the European Parliament provoke some useful action….but somehow I doubt it. At one time I had hoped, at last, after EATCHIP, ATM2000+, SES and then SESAR, that good progess might be made, but despite all these programmes little seems to have changed.

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