Headache

On 06-04-2011, in Perspectives, by steve

Every so often I wake with a splitting headache which is bad enough as it tends to persist the whole day… Even worse however is the rather somber view I have at times like that of our beloved aviation world.

When I think of airports, I see not the runways and the aircraft parked at the gates… I see expensive supermarkets where finding your gate is difficult not because there are so many of them but because you have to wade through shops selling stuff at “tax-free prices” that are still double of what you would pay on Main Street and because the airport will not post the bloody gate numbers until the last minute to keep you in the shopping area that much longer. Very naughty because passengers sometimes forget that they are there to travel and not to make the airport richer with the consequence that they will be late at the gate and possibly delay the flight (or have their baggage unloaded and be left behind). With more and more of their revenue coming from the concessions, who could blame the airports for often concentrating more on selling to the passengers while giving only the minimum they can get away with to their supposedly main customers, the airlines. It is remarkable that one of the main achievements of SESAR will be the full integration of airports into the air traffic management system. I could have sworn aircraft departed from and arrived on runways at airports for decades and that this integration had taken place many years ago. No Sir, that was not the case. Airport operating companies are profit oriented and very competitive and until recently they very successfully kept out of the ATM fold lest their peculiar ideas about operating aircraft be corrupted by “outside” influences. The ideal airline for an airport would be one with no aircraft… The passengers would come to the airport, shop and dine and shop some more and then go home… Aircraft are such a pain in the six o’clock. They are noisy, need a lot of space and their operators are in constant financial stress so the prices the airport can charge is limited. Walking through some airports these days I get the feeling these guys are transforming the facility into a shopping mall and the flying bit is becoming almost incidental.

A few years ago I was crossing the plaza in front of Amsterdam Airport and a guy with a big suitcase approached me with desperation in his eyes: Sir, he asked, where is the airport here? Where indeed!

Not that the airlines appear to be any better on a day like this. There used to be a time when you could actually sit in even the tourist cabin without having to detach and stow your legs and you got decent food even on a short flight. True enough, ticket prices were higher and air travel was still a bit of an exclusive experience. Things have changed and monopoly flag carries were replaced by competitive entities with ticket prices dropping precipitously. A good thing you will say? Well, yes except that for a ticket that costs 3 euros (yes, that is true) you will pay around 120 euros once all the airline fees and airport taxes are added… Then you pay for your bag to be checked and you pay for the food (which is much worse than it used to be…) and legroom has become a word that is synonymous with “non-existent”. Mind you, market forces work both ways and not all tickets have come down in price. While you can fly Brussels-Chicago for 380 any day, flying to Madrid will set you back a cool 500 or more… With mainly business travelers on that route, the airlines know they can charge your weight in cold with impunity.

While sitting in my cramped seat and waiting for push-back (Sorry folks, ATC will only allow us to start the engines in another 30 minutes), I ponder airline attitudes to new developments that would help make the ATC system better. Common wisdom holds that all such things revolve around the business case. Obviously, new in-flight entertainment systems and lie-flat beds have the required business case since airlines spend millions on them while getting even the simplest thing into the front office where pilots work is a hassle and often a hopeless hassle. Obviously, bolting anything onto an aircraft, particularly in the operational context, is an expensive undertaking and you want to proceed with caution. But if there is a business case, it will happen right? Wrong!
It is simply not true that the airline community will rush to implement something new when there is a business case for it. We have seen in the past just how untrue this naïve claim is. First and foremost, in the air traffic management context it is not possible to have any business case that applies to everyone equally. At the same time most ATM gadgets work only when everyone, or at least the overwhelming majority, is equipped. But those for whom the benefits are less or non-existent, even while the majority does have benefits, will balk at equipping (no business case no equipage remember?) and this slows down the others also. In the end, the process stalls, business case or not. In another well rehearsed scenario the community decides not to accept the business case being offered on the industry level. This might be due to outrageous claims for benefits that only a blind man would accept (as was the case with Mode S Enhanced Surveillance) or simply an attempt to avoid the associated costs as long as possible (as in the case of the introduction of 8.33 kHz channel spacing).

Whether it is one or the other reason for balking at equipage, those cases put the lie to the claim that airlines will spend money on ATM related Improvements when there is a business case. No they will not or only exceptionally and reluctantly.

It is not politically correct to say that having a mandate is the only solution, but on day blighted with a headache like this, I will not hesitate to be so politically incorrect. And I am not alone. A few years ago a well respected airline person representing a major carrier did say the very same thing to me: You can come up with business cases until you are blue in the face and there will always be someone who will contest it, causing delay after delay in the hope that the thing will go away… Give us a mandate and things will happen. He was right. Well, sort of.

The problem with mandates has always been that they have a compliance date. While new build aircraft tend to be born with the new feature installed, the retrofit scene is very different. Again, in order to push costs into the future as much as possible, airspace users tend to wait until the last minute to equip, with predictable results. Workshops get overloaded, parts run out, last minute problems surface and in the end a delegation is dispatched to beg for an extension of the deadline. This is usually granted for what else can you do? But the expected benefits will only come later and those poor souls who took the mandate seriously and equipped in time will be penalized. They will think twice next time that is for sure.

Of course there are instances where things appear to be truly jinxed. Take 8.33 channel spacing again. On a certain aircraft type it was discovered that the new radios were suffering from heavy interference in flight. On the ground everything seemed to be all right. They searched and searched and could not find the reason… until somebody closed the main cabin door and they tested the radios like that one more time… and found that the problem came only with the doors open. OK, you very rarely fly with the doors open but you still cannot certify a new radio installation with this kind of limitation. Identifying the problem and finding a solution took several months but luckily the company involved was one of the early birds so there was no program slippage. Another airline was a bit overly confident about knowing what they were doing and they decided on the location of the new antennas for their 8.33 radios all on their own. They drilled the wholes on two or three aircraft before somebody had the good sense to ask Boeing… who told them that they were drilling the skin of their aircraft at a location that was not supposed to have holes in it, 8.33 or not…

But mandates do work even if they are no guarantee of on-time performance…

Of course, mandates are not all born equal. Since the European Commission took an interest in ATM matters, mandates are called Implementing Rules and they apply not only to airspace users (like mandates did in the past) but also to air navigation service providers on the ground. A good thing and high time something like this was introduced… But this world is not perfect and it shows also in the Implementing Rules. Consider the IR on air/ground digital link. It prescribes equipage both in the air and on the ground (great!!!!) but then stops short of saying: you must use the damn thing! Having the capability to do Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC), the reason to have digital link in the first place, will bring benefits in the form of increased capacity only if it is used where communications congestion otherwise limits capacity. If use is left to the discretion of an ANSP and the local perception of CPDLC (and guess what, there are those who still think it does not work…) the Implementing Rule results only in the carriage of some fancy ballast.

Or consider the upcoming Surveillance IR. Again a very welcome development dealing with the long overdue replacement of traditional radars with ADS-B. The IR specifies that both the air and the ground must equip and this is as it should be. The catch? The ground will have to equip 5 years later than the aircraft. So, just like in the old days, if things do not change, aircraft will fly around equipped for five years with practically no benefits. Déjà vu…

The Single European Sky (SES) second round contains the agreed performance targets and also the penalties that can be meted out on those not delivering. Whet SES2 does not contain is a list of acceptable means of compliance. Without those everyone is free to experiment… It takes time to come up with the right solutions and in the meantime, it is business as usual (hm… we are still not pushing back).

Of course it is clear that behind all this are the Air Navigation Service Providers who have become more and more powerful over the years and who are building their little empires behind the smoke screen of euphemisms like the “performance partnership”. While airlines went bust and consolidated, reducing costs by as much as 40 %, putting on the street thousands, many ANSPs built wonderful new campuses (just visit DFS in Langen…) and are now in the process of dismantling any hope for a true Single European Sky.

The Functional Airspace Blocks (FAB), much hyped these days, are nothing more than an EC sanctioned admission that the original dream of a truly European solution to air traffic management will remain just that… a dream. At the recent ATC Global conference in Amsterdam the CEO of DSNA, the French air navigation service provider, nonchalantly informed his audience that the FABs were bringing European diversity to SESAR. Indeed… a Single Sky built of diversity?

It is already visible that each of the FABs are building their little harmonized internal castles and are in fact replacing the old fragmentation with a new one… the kind that had been tried before (remember the regional flow management positions before the CFMU came along?) and which was a huge failure. The original idea behind EUROCONTROL never materialized but at least there was a truly European institution like the CFMU… With the FABs, the CFMU will become a network manager… another nice word for “toothless tiger”. Many ANSPs in the past have claimed that they could do a better job than the CFMU and their aversion to EUROCONTROL was an open secret. Now with the FABs they have the perfect tool not only to revert to regional solutions but also to finish off EUROCONTROL once and for all.

The SESAR concept of operations was originally free of the FAB infection and it sketched a truly Single European Sky where trajectory based operations worked without fragmentation… At the Amsterdam conference the DSNA boss also proclaimed that SESAR was built on the FAB idea right from the start. What total nonsense… Of course it is essential for the ANSPs to bend SESAR into the FAB picture lest the fatal shortcomings (from a truly single sky perspective) become too evident even for the Commission. Hopefully the SESAR folks will see through this outrageous claim and not allow SESAR to be FABbed.

I hate these headache days. The world looks so hopeless and repetitive.

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  1. Meyer says:

    I am sure you will enjoy this article, interesting how everyone sees the FAB/SES concept differently. Quite worrying really

    http://www.atcglobalhub.com/atc2011/website/ReadATMInsightNews.aspx?editid=newsid613&titleid=editid79

  2. steve says:

    I did in fact get a link to the article also via ATC Global directly and you are right, I did rather like it. The differing views would be quite OK if this was the first year of thinking about SES and FAB… But it is not and the continuing fragmentation of thinking shows the still very evident lack of leadership in European ATM. When you see that some ANSP bosses claim that SESAR was always based on the FAB idea, you really start to get worried…

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