On 08-10-2010, in Airline corner, by steve
Aviation is a cyclical business and it is only recently that airlines are managing, to a certain extent, to smooth the worst of the boom and bust swings. In the past, aircraft were ordered at a prodigious rate when business was booming only to see the additional capacity materialize exactly when business started to go down and capacity reduction was the name of the game.
But another cycle is still in the system and it spells trouble for all ATM projects requiring investments from the airlines.
When delays go through the roof, airlines come together to raise their voice, individually and via their associations, demanding improvements and better service. With the proper persuasion, they might even invest in a bit of new technology that promises to improve the delay situation. This can be a protracted process and there are always those who prefer to wait for someone else to save the situation… In any case, projects started during these black periods will still be ongoing when delays usually drop. This may have a variety of reasons, most not even connected with aviation as such, like the general economic situation in key markets impacting people’s propensity to fly.
With demand down and delays within bounds, the willingness of airlines to pay for improvements, even those already agreed, suddenly disappears. The benefits of most ATM projects are connected to their potential to reduce delays and hence bring savings… but if the delays are no longer there, the business case predicated on the high level of delays suddenly disappears. This does not escape the attention of the bean counters who are usually in charge of airlines these days and the money dries up all of a sudden.
While there are airlines out there with a real vision that extends beyond such short sighted bean counter attitudes, the industry as a whole suffers mightily from the boom and bust cycle of promising ATM projects that never seem to materialize completely.
While it is true that there have been ATM projects that only ever had benefits on paper (think of Mode S Enhanced Surveillance), many others with true and proven long term benefits fell victim of waning interest as delays went down temporarily.
Airlines have learned how to add capacity intelligently and most of them no longer end up sitting with aircraft they cannot fill when business drops. To achieve this, planners and bean counters had to force themselves to think beyond the customary 3 years or so. By looking further out, they were able to convince themselves that the next cycle was coming and it was a certainty like death and taxes. The change of attitude enabled them to plan capacity in an adaptive manner.
The same change in attitude is needed when it comes to air traffic management projects of all kinds, big and small. The business case may be built on the reduction of delays and delays may go down for any number of reasons before the project is completed or before airlines have signed up to a project but this is no reason to wriggle out and just enjoy the ride. Delays will go up again and scrambling for a solution only then is a much more expensive option.
A clever industry will use slow times to gear up for the tide that is sure to come. Airlines have shown that they can be clever when it comes to adding capacity. Now they have to show the same in air traffic management.
Neither SESAR nor NextGen are silver bullets and neither will work without the proper attitude of the industry. There is still time but none to waste.