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Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Editor's Note: The Snowball Effect

David Jensen

A snowball effect is taking place in the air traffic management arena. It first became apparent about two years ago, when Boeing announced its new Air Traffic Management division. And it picked up significant momentum when, during this year’s Farnborough Air Show, Thales, Airbus and EADS announced they have formed an open industry alliance to establish a radically new, worldwide airspace system designed to enhance capacity, safety, security and efficiency. Never before have so many heavy hitters in the aerospace industry joined in a common goal. And more heavy hitters are being invited to make this snowball even larger.

Noel Forgeard, Airbus’ chief executive officer (CEO), said at Farnborough, "It is in all of our interests that the world has an air traffic network to allow the safe and secure growth in travel that international trade and tourism demand." The broad intent of the newly formed Air Traffic Alliance (ATA) echoes Boeing’s stated purpose for establishing Boeing ATM. Indeed, it could well be argued that without a radical change in the world’s airspace system, growth in commercial aviation soon will reach a standstill.

The ATA and Boeing ATM have more in common than comparable broad intent. Consider the two entities’ vision of tomorrow’s airspace system.

The ATA reports that it wants to focus on the "real-time exchange and sharing of flight plan and trajectory data between airlines’ operations centers, aircraft, airports and ATC." Boeing ATM lists "shared trajectory information and flight plan information" as one of its key aims, according to its literature.

The ATA seeks satellite-based navigation (GPS and Galileo) to reduce route spacing and improve all-weather airport operations. Boeing ATM’s vision is of a space-based ATM system that employs both navigational and communication satellites.

The ATA says it plans to develop "a highly automated flight plan data process supporting fully flexible aircraft routing and dynamic airspace management." Boeing ATM says it seeks "a common information network that will allow the dynamic revision of flight plans and dissemination of flight-critical information."

These are just a few of the two entities’ goals that are largely parallel. Of course, they can’t help but maintain a bit of trans-Atlantic rivalry. Officials of the three European firms distinguish their alliance from Boeing ATM in their ability to muster from among themselves an impressive range of expertise, from ground systems and ATC equipment to integrated airborne systems to satellite systems. In other words, the ATA could more than facilitate a new airspace system; it could fully develop and build it. However, Boeing ATM now distinguishes itself, too, having two new dedicated laboratories and several contracts for their use. It also has opened European and Asian offices and has some two years’ head start in approaching potential partners from around the world.

But the spirit of cooperation, not competition, clearly resides in the initiatives in Europe and in the United States. And it is only a matter of time until the two initiatives probably will be working together, if not becoming one. There is little difference in their goals because emerging technologies have placed the modernization of airspace management on a fairly predictable course.

Now it is only a matter of following that course, and here is where the critical mass, caused by the snowball effect, comes to play. With the aerospace industry’s modernization effort coalescing and with civil aviation facing a probable capacity problem, a worldwide airspace modernization effort can be made large enough to overcome the typical problems of funding priorities and politics, or turf protection, among nations. (The European alliance projects 5 percent traffic growth worldwide and the need to handle three times more flights in the next 20 years in Europe.)

And the industry is coalescing. "We invite Alenia Marconi Systems to join the alliance," said Rainer Hertrich, EADS CEO, at Farnborough," and we will open up the alliance to Boeing, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, as well."

"Our long-term aim is similar to Boeing’s with its ATM program," Forgeard added. "The ultimate goal must be discussions with Boeing, but first we had to create a European grouping that they [Boeing] could talk to."

I’ve since talked to a Boeing ATM official who said his company "would be happy to talk to the European alliance." Boeing has already visited companies in Europe and the United States as part of its Working Together Team effort, intended to make the airspace modernization snowball larger.

Federal Aviation Administrator Jane Garvey spoke of a slightly different topic at the Aero Club of Washington in late July. But her sentiments (in reference to pilots, air traffic controllers, labor, management, the FAA and Congress) sounded a note that is appropriate to the ATM modernization efforts of ATA and Boeing ATM.

"The only way to meet these challenges is to face them together," she said. "Consensus isn’t just something to strive for. In aviation, it is an essential element in any real plan for progress…We’ve stopped defining ourselves by our competing interests and started applying ourselves to our common goal. Those goals haven’t changed: we’re focused, as ever, on safety, efficiency and adding capacity. But the way we pursue our goals has been evolving. We now pursue them as a community."

Timely sentiment. And well put.

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