ATM Modernization, Business & GA, Commercial, Military

Editor’s Note: Airlines as Jugglers

By David Jensen | January 1, 2000

What will be in future cockpits? We hope we answered that question in part in our Outlook coverage in this issue.

However, for added perspective on this topic, from the user community, I refer to the keynote speaker for Avionics 99, held in late October in Bellevue, Wash. Capt. Bill Watts, Delta Air Lines’ director of flight operations and technical support, gave attendees his view of "The Future Cockpit," the title of his talk. As a 27-year veteran at Delta, with two Master’s degrees, he can talk with authority. And, because he represents a commercial entity, he must, when making a decision, weigh all aspects of what future avionics must offer—much like a juggler keeping several balls in the air.

Not surprisingly, Watts emphasized in his talk, safety and its link to sound business. "If we at Delta Air Lines have accidents, our company survival is threatened," he told an audience of some 1,200 people. Obviously the "bottom line" must make room for safety.

Commenting on the total industry, Watts said, "We elected to put in enhanced ground prox[imity system] before it was mandated, and the reason we did it was because of safety, and that was not a cheap solution."

Another not-so-cheap contributor to safety is the head-up display (HUD). HUDs give airlines Category IIIa landing performance, said Watts. "But we at Delta elected to put the HUD on airplanes because we think there are many tools on that platform that give us a better situation awareness in the cockpit...for example, flight path vector and acceleration cues."

Watts must keep abreast of trends such as increased systems integration. Here he warns that in addition to being integrated, "we also need to make sure these systems are interoperable, meaning that if we fly in Europe, we don’t have to have different equipment in Europe than we have in the U.S."

The Delta official added that for the future cockpit, "we must also talk of standardization. Some people say standardization impedes progress, and in some cases that’s true," he commented. But Watts sees workable alternatives and offers as an example Southwest Airlines’ decision to have the "glass" cockpits for its new B737NG look like the steam gauge cockpits in its older 737s. "The solution was to put in a glass display that is large and programmable, so that [Boeing] could give the steam gauges to Southwest for their standardization and offer a different display system for the other airlines," said Watts. "That’s the kind of solution we need in the airlines…standardized, yet they’re flexible."

Regarding the imminent wide use of data link, Watts noted the adjustments pilots must make. "In the cockpit, we now fly with our eyes and hands, and we communicate with our mouth and ears." Data link, he observed, represents a "paradigm shift" that would have pilots communicate with their eyes and hands—"and that’s going to add confusion."

Watts warned of another paradigm shift, from the use of automatic dependence surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B). Here he noted the intent of transferring some traffic management duties from the ground to the cockpit (a move the Air Line Pilots Association challenges). Watts added that ADS-B currently does not provide a collision avoidance solution, "so it will have to fill that role, or we keep TCAS [traffic alert and collision avoidance system]. We in the cockpit do not want to give up TCAS."

These represent only some of Watts’ observances of the future cockpit; others further support the user viewpoint on the subject, which can best be described as practical, as well as comprehensive, in that systems must satisfy various requirements: operational continuity, interoperability, situational awareness, affordability, and above all, safety. Picture these as balls a juggler must keep airborne. That is what airlines and officials like Bill Watts must do when making purchase decisions, only for them, dropping a ball has much greater consequence.

Receive the latest avionics news right to your inbox