Dreamliners back in the air, controllers back on the job…

On 01/05/2013, in Viewpoint, by steve

devilUnless I am very much mistaken, the grounding of the Boeing 787 has been the longest in aviation history and only the DC-10 comes close, but that was in another time and age. Just a coincidence, of course, but still a telling story and a sign of this age the FAA’s enforced decision last month to furlough air traffic controllers due to a shortage of money caused by the federal budget restrictions implemented by politicians with little understanding of what this would cause in specialized areas like aviation.

Boeing screwed up big time with the 787 battery system as did Washington with its lawn-mower approach to straightening the federal budget.

Of course this was not the first major issue with the design of the 787. The center wing-box is now much heavier that was originally foreseen due to additional bits that had to be bolted on when it was discovered that the first load calculations were incorrect. Not that Airbus did any better with the 380. Incompatible software at different fabrication locations resulted in wire harnesses being too short, probably another first for the industry. Then cracks found on the rib-feet of the wings were discovered accidentally… while engineers were looking at the wing of the Qantas 380 that had one of its engines go boom. While the cracks did not pause an immediate safety problem, had they not been discovered like this, it is anybody’s guess what might have happened later on.

The way air traffic management should be financed has been a matter of debate for a long time now. In Europe, full cost recovery means that basically the airspace users pay everything and there is no danger of the money running out. Except of course if the airspace users themselves go belly up as had happened, well, more or less, after 9/11.

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The Mortal Sin of not Taking CPDLC Seriously

On 18/01/2013, in Viewpoint, by steve

CPDLC… Controller Pilot Digital Link Communications. It all started when experts predicted that with the increasing demand, congestion on the air traffic control frequencies will make communications impossible and hence a cap will have to be put on the number of aircraft being served simultaneously, severely restricting ATC capacity.

CPDLC is in fact non-verbal communications using predetermined messages for all but the most time critical exchanges. A kind of SMS service for aviation if you like.

A decade or so ago, Europe was actually leading the world in developing CPDLC, so much so, that American Airlines, disenchanted with the FAA performance on the same subject, asked to be allowed into the EUROCONTROL Petal trials, the trendsetting project that solidified the basis for this new communications technology.

Both the US NextGen and the European SESAR projects show digital link communications as one of the most important elements of the new ATM system. However, some of the main European provider states have disclosed at the end of 2012 that, in spite of a mandate by the European Commission, they will be late with their digital link implementation. One of them will not be ready until 2019!

Of course to-day we know a good deal more about the future ATM system than we did back in the days of Petal. Back then, the focus was mainly on avoiding communications congestion in continental airspace. Anything more that digital link could do was still just a glimmer in the eyes of the most daring dreamers amongst us.

In the meantime, we have of course defined the meaning and practical aspects of Trajectory Based Operations, the new concept which finally does away with the legacy airspace based concept to replace is with something that is able to give back most of the freedom to airspace users that was taken away when positive control was introduced. In the drive for ever more economies in operations, that freedom translates to many millions of bucks saved every year for every company.

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2013 – Another year of failures?

On 02/01/2013, in Viewpoint, by steve

It is customary to look back at the end of the year to take stock and then to make all kinds of promises to ourselves for the new year… Promises that we seldom keep.

European air traffic management had a tumultuous year culminating in grumbling by the airspace users on a previously unheard scale and indeed language. The FAB’s were criticized fiercely, air/ground digital link services will be late and the much hyped new version of the SESAR Master-plan barely made it…

So, what promises will Europe make to its long suffering airspace users for 2013? Words are only words of course and we all know the value of New Year promises… But then what can we realistically expect from 2013?

To understand 2012, we do need to go back a little further in history. For the better part of two decades, Europe has had air traffic management improvement projects that did generate new ideas, new solutions which even managed to evolve as traffic patterns and aircraft capabilities were evolving… on paper. Because in reality, very little of the new ideas were put into every-day operational use. The projects failed one after the other. EATCHIP, ATM2000+ went down the drain and the best proof of their failure is the existence of SESAR. Had the previous projects achieved their objectives, there would never have been a need for a monster project like SESAR.

It was of course very convenient to blame EUROCONTROL for the failures and subsequently the only institution in Europe with real ATM knowledge was gutted and basically made all but irrelevant.
Other than a few mavericks, yours truly included, nobody spoke up to tell the world the real reason for all those project failures: that it were recalcitrant States and ANSPs that actually not only threw the wrench into the works but also kept it there to make sure change was all but impossible.

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Electronics creeping up on me…

On 29/12/2012, in Viewpoint, by steve

One way of dividing the world population might be to form two groups: readers of Time and readers of Newsweek. I have been an avid reader of Time magazine ever since my English reached a level good enough to peruse the publication in the mid-sixties. Arrival of the magazine has been the highlight of the week every week since then. I did pick up the odd copy of Newsweek also when they had something interesting to say but have never had a subscription.

Now Newsweek is stopping with its print edition and will only be available in electronic form. Of course with the proliferation of electronic readers and general purpose tablets, reaching a very wide audience in the developed world vie electronic means is not such a big deal any more. So, while Newsweek’s step may appear to be rather bold, it is not so outlandish… unless of course if we consider those countries where the print edition would still be the main, if not the only, way to read Newsweek. So, they are effectively vacating those markets…

One cannot ignore the fact that more and more newsmagazines and professional periodicals include a digital version with a subscription to their paper editions. The digital versions are being promoted quite extensively and I suspect some of them have already placed a mark in their calendars for some time the future when they will announce the termination of the print edition…

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Shame on you Airbus

On 16/12/2012, in Viewpoint, by cleo

I have never particularly liked Airbus. For decades, a political football parading as a real company, they were always just a tad too aggressive and self-important for my liking. Some of our airline colleagues related just how different it was to accept new aircraft in Seattle and in Toulouse. The Airbus personnel always acted like they were some kind of superior beings with the customers lost sheep needing direction. The initial debacle with the proposed A350 was a good example of what happens when a company thinks they know everything better and try to rape their customers with their ideas.

When they created the A380, there was a brief period when they were in the limelight, after all, that fat lady is huge, the biggest there is. But other than that, it is not a revolutionary aircraft in any way.

When Boeing, very wisely, decided to forego creating a similar behemoth and went instead for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, they also made a number of design decisions that did result in a trendsetting product. With the fuselage constructed of composite barrels and most of the hydraulics replaced by electrics, the 787 is like a beacon showing where the future is. Whatever Airbus does to the A350, it will be second fiddle, no doubt about that.

Of course the next big battle will be the replacements for the 737 and 320 family aircraft. Both manufacturers have decided to offer re-engined versions of their current bestsellers, resulting in the Boeing 737MAX and the Airbus A320NEO. Both are interim solutions with a shelf life of less than a decade, serving as the mainstay of the industry until engine and aerodynamic innovation matures enough to warrant the expense of completely new designs. But with fuel prices heading North, airlines are eager to get their hand on aircraft offering fuels savings and the MAX and NEO will both deliver that.

They are selling well and it is therefore difficult to understand why Airbus has felt it necessary to run a series of double page ads trying to throw mud on the 737MAX. Unless they are truly afraid that the MAX will put the NEO to shame…

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Storm rising?

On 11/08/2012, in Viewpoint, by steve

If you read the official communiqués from SESAR and EUROCONTROL, it is easy to be lulled into the perception that all is well on the European air traffic management front and we are more than ready to face any sudden jump in traffic demand. If, on the other hand, you listen to the jungle telegraph or, increasingly, look at reports in the trade press, a very different picture emerges.

Just read this article and then this one if you were not convinced by our own writing and the comment made by a Lufthansa expert on Roger-Wilco here.

Air Traffic Management in Europe has always been a minefield of political wrangling and adding the EU to the combination has not really improved matters. SESAR is a flagship project with huge industry interests at play while also being a sensitive spot for the Commission who would of course not like to see SESAR fail, especially after the less than stellar performance of SES and the FABs.

It is striking to observe the difference in communications about the US’s NextGen and the European SESAR. NextGen is far from problem free and you read about it regularly. The problems and possible solutions are being openly discussed and credibility is not adversely affected by this openness. At the same time, SESAR appears to be problem free… and this is what kills credibility in the eyes of all but the most short sighted experts.

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European ATM Blasted Again

On 04/05/2012, in Viewpoint, by steve

One of the many yardsticks you can use to measure the passage of time is the frequency you encounter air traffic management experts who stare at you as if you were from the moon when you mention EATCHIP or ATM2000+. Yes, there is a whole new generation of experts working at the air navigation service providers (ANSP) who have never, or hardly ever, heard of those flagship projects which were supposed to save European ATM in the 80s and 90s.

Then there are ANSP managers, who pretend that they have never heard of them. They are the ones who whine and cry saying that the targets being set by the European Commission as part of the Single European Sky (SES) legislation are too ambitious and they cannot be achieved in the short time available.

These managers act as if they had to start from scratch. As if the initial aims of SES were not in fact just an incremental improvement over what the ANSPs have, supposedly, already achieved as part of the ATM2000+ project. At least I cannot recall any of them having said that ATM2000+ was a failure and that they had done mighty little.

ATM2000+ was a failure of course simply because no agreement could be reached on anything while each ANSP was busy protecting their turf…

The EC was triggered to intervene by this exact failure. They let loose the FAB concept and SES I and when both faltered, SES II. The longer term future was to be assured by SESAR.

With all this heavy artillery you would think European ATM was finally home free. No way!

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In Memoriam – Budapest Ferihegy Airport Terminal 1

On 14/03/2012, in Viewpoint, by steve

The current Hungarian government can claim credit for a series of mistakes but allowing the national airline to go bust without a successor, when in fact the previous government had left a detailed blueprint for setting up a new airline, is certainly among the most painful. An absolute first is also the fact that Terminal 1 at Ferihegy is now going to be closed since with Malev gone, there is simply not enough traffic to justify keeping the old terminal operational. No other major airport in recent history was forced to close a terminal because they had run out of aircraft…

The opening ceremony

When Ferihegy was opened on 7 May 1950, the building was one of the most modern and probably the nicest terminals in Europe. The two towers may have appeared a bit superfluous but the real beauty of the building became apparent only from the air… as it befits an airport terminal. The designers had given the building the form of a twin-motor aircraft, an absolute unique feature before or since. Expansion of the passenger handling areas in recent years did hide this noble form to some extent but even to-day, if you look closely on take-off from runway 31L you can still spot the designer’s original intention.

The twin-motor aircraft seen from the air

Of course the ideas about passenger flows through an airport were very different then from what they are now. Separating arriving and departing passengers, air-bridges or self-check-in kiosks were not even glimmers in the eyes of the experts and as a result, architecture could still get the upper hand.

The grandiose main concourse

The main arrival and departure hall is an impressive place that lends an aura of elegance to the flying experience. Its gleaming marble floor and the original wooden check-in desks were all tributes to what was still seen as the most exotic way to travel.

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Is There Life After the National Airline?

On 06/01/2012, in Viewpoint, by steve

There used to be a time when each country had an airline and it was called the flag carrier. Some countries had more than one airline, but generally only one of them was recognized as the “flag carrier”. Those were the times when States regulated flights between their cities and more often than not, connections were based more on political considerations than economic viability. Very few of the flag carriers ever made money but that was not a problem. Taxpayers were “happy” to pitch in to cover the losses (even though they were rarely aware of their own largesse).

You will only find Hungarian products here!

Then times changed, deregulation hit both the US and Europe and airlines were forced to transform themselves into real commercial operations, accountable to their shareholders. Some were successful, others less so. Icons of the industry like Sabena, Swissair, Pan Am and TWA wend bankrupt and disappeared. Consolidation swept through the industry bringing disgrace to some great airlines as they were gobbled up by their rivals (think of Delta and Northwest or, even worse, KLM being bought by Air France). In the meantime, low cost airlines flourished while traditional carriers kept reducing their costs year on year. One thing is sure: through sweat and tears, the airline industry managed to stay on its feet through the worst economic crises the world has seen since the great depression.

Interestingly, there are a few holdouts, kind of legacy “flag carriers” which still struggle along thanks to handouts from their home States which, apparently, have not caught on to the changes taking place in the world.

One of these holdouts is Malev, Hungarian Airlines. I am particularly interested in them because I started my aviation career in 1969 at Malev, who was back then also the owner of the air traffic control service in Hungary.

Malev has never been big and in the communist times they were operating like any other state enterprise. No problem with fuel guzzling Russian aircraft types, no problem with being inefficient and no problem with having roughly nine times as many people per available seat than any comparable western company. Money was not an issue…

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States should be Made to Pay

On 09/12/2011, in Viewpoint, by cleo

When I read about the Paris-Toulouse flight conducted by Air France to show how much CO2 emission they can save by optimized air traffic management including continuous descent approaches, my immediate reaction was not happiness about saving the planet. No sir, my reaction was: here is the best source of funds to pay ATM developments with, including aircraft equipment.

For decades, airlines were (and still are by the way) obliged to fly uneconomical routes, circumnavigate military areas, stay on sub-optimal levels because of outdated letters of agreements between control centers, fly obsolete departure routes… the list is endless. Politicians have paid lip service to wanting to improve ATM but did little to actually implement really effective improvements. Just look at EATCHIP, ATM2000+ and the political statements associated with them and compare to what had actually been done. Hell, the first wave of SESAR “improvements” are little more than what should have been accomplished by ATM2000+ years ago.

By inaction and omission, European States have caused billions of extra costs to the airlines and by proxy to their customers, the passengers. If anyone had any doubts that it could have been done much better, just look at the improvements that are suddenly appearing in air traffic management, driven by environmental considerations but still using much the same ATC equipment that was there also 10 years ago!

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