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Monday, April 1, 2002

Editor's Note: Boeing –– Misunderstood?

David Jensen

Everyone knows Boeing manufactures airplanes. Many know, as well, that for the sake of diversification, it also provides other products and services, from satellites to broadband cabin communications to integrated military electronics. All of this activity follows the maxim that you develop a product or service and then build and market it.

So what is Boeing’s intent with its newest entity, Air Traffic Management (ATM)? This 17-month-old company’s purpose doesn’t appear to fall neatly into the develop/build/market axiom. Its mission appears larger in scope. Many in the aviation industry, therefore, are probably curious about Boeing ATM’s purpose. Many more are no doubt suspicious.

Nevertheless, Boeing ATM has been advancing aggressively. Its progress thus far and details of future activities were outlined recently at the Maastricht ATC show in the Netherlands.

When Boeing ATM announced its launch in November 2000, its new officials cited the often repeated warning of an imminent air traffic capacity crunch. They quoted experts who predict air traffic volume will double by 2020 and that current modernization initiatives will not meet capacity needs.

In response, Boeing ATM has proposed a plan that is bold, if not revolutionary. It is bold because it is comprehensive and global in scope. The plan would actually implement the communication, navigation and surveillance/air traffic management (CNS/ATM) concept that has been discussed for several years.

Basically, Boeing ATM proposes a system comprising three features:

  • Aircraft trajectory information shared with air traffic managers on the ground;

  • A common information network that will allow the dynamic revision of flight plans and dissemination of flight-critical information, such as weather; and

  • Airspace redesign to allow more strategic and less repetitive operating procedures.

The new system would be spaced-based, requiring both navigation and communication satellites, as well as ground stations and master control stations. Technologically, many would say the Boeing plan is quite doable–but costly.

What does Boeing want from this concept? Does it want to build a satellite network now that it has acquired Hughes Communications? Or is its intent to become the world’s dominant air traffic services provider?

At Maastricht, Boeing ATM officials made little mention of the global ATM plan. Rather they reported on progress made in gaining input from other entities in the aviation industry–systems manufacturers, research and regulatory agencies, even other airframe makers. Boeing ATM refers to them as its Working Together Team (WTT). The WTT’s initial goal was to draw up system performance requirements (SPRs) for the new, global system. Following a series of meetings in Europe and North America, a 139-page document listing 177 SPRs was made public in late February (see www.boeing.com/atm/pdf/sprd.pdf).

"The document admittedly is rough on the edges," says Matt Vance, WTT manager. "While we did not reach consensus, the document is a collaborative work in progress, and we commend the participants for their contributions." The attempt to establish a consensus reveals the dilemma of a company like Boeing: It is large enough to capture industry attention, but attention laced with suspicion. "We think that will mellow," says Vance.

"We’re not trying to sell satellites [and] we don’t want to manage a worldwide ATM system; that would probably be done by three or four major air traffic service providers," he adds, addressing suspicions of Boeing ATM’s motives. "We’re more like ‘enablers.’" In other words, the company is using its clout in an attempt to facilitate an industry-wide effort.

Being an enabler (rather than the developer, producer and marketer) of an idea is a unique role for Boeing–one that some of its officials will admit is "Don Quixote-like." Vance lists the three major challenges of establishing a new, worldwide ATM system: political, economical and technical. Forging the political environment to develop a global system no doubt represents the biggest challenge. Consider, for example, the struggle in Europe to consolidate and unify air traffic services and then magnify that around the world. Closely related to the political challenge is building a viable business case, says Vance.

The easiest challenge would be that of developing the appropriate technologies. Yet here, too, Boeing ATM faces the difficulty of maintaining among entities with diverse interests "a system perspective rather than a technology or component perspective," according to Vance, who adds that planning a worldwide system represents a "paradigm shift in thinking."

Boeing ATM believes it has begun to meet the three main challenges with its Working Together Team. "We want to build momentum," says Vance.

Boeing is obviously committed to making its vision a reality. Boeing ATM has mushroomed in size from some 40 employees at its inception to more than 200 today, about half of whom are engineers. It has an office in Hong Kong and plans to open another one in Brussels soon. The company also intends to conduct "several tangible demonstrations this year" of technologies that are key to the plan.

Is Boeing chasing windmills? Hardly. Long-established manufacturing giants don’t take idealistic flights of fancy. The company’s main motive is quite simple and understandable–to grow. It believes the rest of the aviation industry shares that goal–and from that, it hopes to build a global consensus.

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