The pain of retrofit

On 05/02/2013, in Airline corner, by steve

Airspace users and the air traffic management network interact every day and the operation is usually pretty smooth. Of course nobody is happy when there are delays caused by air traffic control capacity constraints, but this is also part of the game. Increasing demand and competition for the same scarce resources, like runways, makes it almost inevitable that not everyone can fly as they have planned.

As a general rule, aircraft coming out of the factories of Airbus, Boeing and the other airframers have all the equipment on board to operate in any airspace of the world. There are occasions though when the ATM network introduces new requirements aimed at reducing delays, enhancing safety or some similar, recognized and accepted purpose. They have two options: either go for voluntary equipage or issue a mandate.

In theory, voluntary equipage should work when there is a compelling business case for the new feature and airlines will go for it on this basis. In theory. In practice even the best business case tends to bring differing results to different companies and even in sight of clear benefits, some outfits will still have different priorities and they decide not to equip… it is voluntary, after all. The problem here is that most ATM enhancements work only if a fairly large percentage of the affected aircraft population is equipped. If this threshold is not reached, the benefits fail to materialize and those who had taken the voluntary path end up having wasted their money.

A mandate is a different matter altogether. Here a date is set for new aircraft to have the required equipment on board ex-factory and another date, usually a little later, is set for older aircraft to comply with the mandate. The mandate has the force of law and it is generally hated by the airspace users. They much prefer voluntary equipage… But we know it does not work, so back to the mandates.

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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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European states ignoring Commission Regulations?

On 15/12/2012, in Airline corner, by steve

It is only a few days ago that airlines in Europe blasted states and ANSPs for creating empty shells which are then sold as operating Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs) and the European Commission sent an equally strong message expressing its displeasure.

The next round of fire aims at the UK, Italy, Ireland, Austria, Spain and France who have reported at the recent Project Steering Group meeting on Data Link Services, that they will not meet the deadline of 7 February 2012 for the provision of data link services in the core area of Europe as mandated by Commission Regulation EC No 29/2009.

“The decision of these member states to not comply with European regulation will not only undermine the financial investments made by airspace users, but will also damage the credibility of the Single European Sky of which achieving de-fragmentation of the ATM infrastructure is a key objective.” – says IATA and AEA in their common letter addressed to Matthew Baldwin, Director Aviation and International Transport Affairs at the European Commission.

What is more, they urge the European Commission to take the necessary legal action against non-compliant member states…

I have said many times that in the past that promising air traffic management programs like EATCHIP and ATM2000+ died premature deaths not because of mismanagement by EUROCONTROL as states like to claim. They went nowhere because some states and ANSPs chose to walk their own way even if it meant hitting the wall.

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Is SESAR Doomed to Fail?

On 10/06/2012, in SESAR's Palace, by steve

As some of us will remember, SESAR is not the first attempt to remedy the sad state of air traffic management in Europe. Think EATCHIP and ATM2000+… This latter was especially significant, since the ministers of transport of all ECAC States had signed off on it, promising to implement what was required to make the ATM2000+ concept of operations reality.

Very little, if anything, was realized of the lofty aims of ATM2000+. The best proof of this is that had ATM2000+ become reality, there would have been no need for SESAR… But why did those earlier projects fail? There was nothing wrong with the concept or the technologies proposed. However, everything was wrong with some of the major air navigation service providers in Europe who did everything in their power to block things from happening. In some cases they did this for no other reason than their inability to be ready on time and not wanting to be seen as lagging behind… When we were working on the initial phases of air/ground digital link and controller-pilot digital link communications, it was discovered that one of the biggest States in Europe did not have a digital-link policy, let alone a program to implement it. We practically had to “shame” them into starting work on this, arguing that it would look really bad if they were not involved…

Ministerial signatures notwithstanding, ATM2000+ sputtered, struggled and finally died when everyone started to wait for SESAR (the next big one…) to take over and solve all problems. In fact, what little may have come from ATM2000+ was also strangled because things were put on hold when the miracle watch began.

It is often said that SESAR is different. It is being created under the auspices of the Single European Sky (SES) legislation, it has the power of the European Commission behind it… it will be a success. Well, I am not so sure.

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Effective Data Communications for NextGen

On 09/05/2012, in NextGen, by mike@boeing

Beneficial Capabilities

Air traffic service (ATS) data communications provide benefits in terms of increased airspace capacity and improved operational efficiency while also enhancing the existing high level of safety.

Increased airspace capacity. In continental/domestic airspace, capacity is primarily increased through basic controller-pilot datalink communications (CPDLC) that reduce controller and flight crew workload as well as voice frequency congestion associated with routine communications. More specifically, basic CPDLC offers information exchange between the controller and flight crew for vertical, crossing constraint, lateral offset, simple route modification, and speed change clearance request and delivery. Effective strategic management of predictable and accurate aircraft trajectories in the future is also expected to increase continental/domestic airspace capacity; for example, delays due to convective weather will be mitigated by the ability to quickly supply complex route modifications to a large set of affected aircraft before departure. In oceanic, polar, and remote airspace, capacity is primarily increased through manual and automated reports that enable reduced aircraft separation by reliably providing surveillance data for separation assurance, flight plan conformance monitoring, and trajectory planning purposes.

Figure 1. Dynamic Airborne Reroute Procedure

Improved operational efficiency. Operational efficiency is primarily improved through trajectory-based operations (TBO) that decrease aircraft fuel consumption and/or flight time, particularly in the face of constraints that would otherwise increase those parameters. Parallel integration of ATS provider ground automation, aircraft operator ground automation, and avionics (aircraft automation) and of controller, dispatcher, and flight crew operations enable TBO for rapid and accurate trajectory definition, coordination, and monitoring. TBO can be used, for example, to reduce flight time through user-preferred complex route modifications for in-flight aircraft as seen with Dynamic Airborne Reroute Procedures (see Figure 1) and to perform environmentally-friendly fuel-saving optimized profile descents as demonstrated by Tailored Arrivals (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Tailored Arrival

Enhanced safety. Safety is primarily enhanced through accurate machine-to-machine exchange of precise data, such as complete three- or four-dimensional complex routes and latitude/longitude coordinates that resolve duplicate waypoint identifiers. These exchanges prevent gross navigational errors that could otherwise be caused by the flight crew manually transcribing detailed information.

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DCIS – What is this?

On 08/02/2012, in Buzzwords explained, by steve

It was a sunny and warm afternoon when American Airlines captain Russ Chew, IATA European Regional Director Phil Hogge and myself sat down in the little garden behind our house in Brussels to discuss AA’s dissatisfaction with the way the FAA was going about its air/ground digital link program and how AA may participate in EUROCONTROL’s highly successful Petal trials. This was the end of the 90s and controller/pilot digital link communications (CPDLC) were seen as one of the most essential elements in any future ATM system.

Right about that time a few European ANSPs were busy trying to kill Petal (simply because they were not yet ready for CPDLC) but Maastricht UAC was adamant and with the help of IATA, EUROCONTROL staved off the naysayers. AA became a Petal participant and the trials were concluded with success. Unfortunately, the implementation of CPDLC was slowed down to a crawl by events like the crisis following 9/11 and the other subsequent downturns in the industry. While there continued to be movement in Europe, the FAA actually shelved their CPDLC program in 2003.

Of course with NextGen in the works it could not be otherwise: the FAA had to revive digital communications work and this is now incorporated in the, not too imaginatively named, Data Comm program. What is more, bidding is open for the DCIS or Data Communications Integrated Services contract which is, of course, also part of the NextGen environment. The winner will establish and operate the Data Comm network for a period of 17 years with the service being fee based, to be paid by the FAA.

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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.

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American Airlines in Chapter 11 Protection – Memories of Another Day

On 30/11/2011, in Airline corner, by steve

It was a sunny afternoon in Brussels when we gathered with Russ Chew of American Airlines and my boss from IATA in our little garden in Zaventem to discuss how to proceed with the implementation of air/ground digital link and controller/pilot digital link communications (CPDLC). American was deeply unhappy with the way the FAA was handling the subject and they wanted to join the EUROCONTROL Petal trials which were booking good progress (in spite of repeated efforts on the part of some European States that wanted to kill the whole thing). The rest is history… American Airlines’ 767s were the first to be equipped with VDL Mode 2/ATN avionics and they played an essential role in ensuring that the US and Europe kept their respective digital link programs synchronized and fully interoperable.

This bold and unconventional step was typical of the spirit and attitudes of this great airline which traces its routes to the 1920s when it started to carry mail for the US government. Then in 1936 AA was the first airline to fly the Douglas DC-3, notable as the first aircraft designed to carry enough passengers to generate a profit even without revenue from mail or cargo.

But the list of innovative firsts tied to the name of American Airlines is almost endless. 1942 the catering service Sky Chefs was started to provide meals to AA passengers and in 1948 American introduced coach class service and family fares to make flying accessible to more people.

1957 saw the opening of the world’s first Stewardess College and in 1959 the first non-stop coast to coast service was introduced using the new Boeing 707.

Sabre, American’s state of the art computerized reservation system became an icon in itself first being made available to travel agents and later evolving into the core element of internet based reservation systems like Travelocity.

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Old habits that refuse to die

On 29/11/2011, in SESAR's Palace, by steve

Things like the Single European Sky (SES), SESAR, even the FABs were supposed to bring a fresh air to European ATM, dispensing once and for all with bad habits and procedures that kept making life for airspace users unnecessarily hard and expensive.

Among those old habits, the persistent mismatch between mandates to equip aircraft and adding the capability concerned to ANSPs was one of the most striking and expensive. What did this mean? The industry, sometimes all on its own but more often after “gentle persuasion” by the service providers “agreed” that a new piece of kit had to be bolted on the airplanes and a date was set by which time the new kit had to be operational. There was never a mandate for the ground to also equip, this happened in a haphazard way if it happened at all and often aircraft flew around for years with totally useless boxes on board that had cost a fortune to install with no benefit at all (just think of Mode S enhanced surveillance if you want an example).

One would think that under SES and its Implementing Rules (IR) this kind of mismatch is a thing of the past. Fat chance.

A few days ago two new SES IRs were published in the EU Official Journal.

Regulation No 1206/2011 prescribes that air navigation service providers must make use of the aircraft identification down-linked via Mode S by the second of January of the year 2020. This is a cool 17 years after the corresponding airborne retrofit date which was in 2003. Oooops….

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FAA Funds ADS-B for JetBlue

On 04/02/2011, in NextGen, by steve

Low-cost carriers are not known for their willingness to pay for extra equipment that may be required to improve air traffic management. In this respect they are very much similar to their legacy brethren… Even when there is a clear business case, the mad rush to equip is usually conspicuous by its absence. There are exceptions to rule though. Southwest had announced earlier that it will equip all its fleet with RNP capability and the news is out now that US low-cost carrier JetBlue is equipping 35 of its Airbus A-320 aircraft with ADS-B Out capability, including the ACSS SafeRoute suite of applications. The catch? This is a demo project funded by the FAA to the tune of 4.2 million dollars.

Once equipped, JetBlue’s aircraft will be able to fly more precise trajectories under ADS-B surveillance from Boston and New York to Florida and the Caribbean although this latter will have to wait until 2012 as there is no ground ADS-B infrastructure there just yet.

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