The year 2001 is now behind us and virtually everyone in the civil aviation industry is glad it is. Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, civil aviation faced its darkest hour. There was no talk then of progress and innovation, just of survival.
The industry still suffers from that event, as well as from the economic slowdown. But in this issue of Avionics Magazine, we show that progress and innovation lives on, particularly in air traffic services and management. Eurocontrol has just launched its largest project, reduced vertical separation minima, or RVSM. Additional flight levels now exist in Europe’s upper airspace, and they significantly increase air transportation capacity in a region that faces a critical delay problem, despite the air travel slump following 9/11.
Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has reached another important milestone in its effort to establish a communication, navigation, surveillance/air traffic management (CNS/ATM) environment. On page 27, we report the initial fielding of the user request evaluation tool (URET). This air traffic management enhancement, part of FAA’s Free Flight phase one initiative, saves both time and money and facilitates decision making.
We also report in this issue that the once troubled Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) program appears to be back on course. The system is about to be handed over to FAA for test and evaluation, leading to contractor acceptance in March 2003. For the Alaskan aviation community, the system’s availability couldn’t come too soon. WAAS will be part of phase two of Alaska’s Capstone project.
Europe’s WAAS counterpart, the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS) is moving forward, too. The program was scheduled to enter critical design review by now, and preparation for operational readiness is expected.
Have we blissfully returned to normalcy? Hardly.
According to the Air Transport Association of America Inc., some 40 million travelers used U.S. airlines during the recent holiday season. That is a lot, but that number is down by 16 to 17 percent from the 2000 holiday season. In addition, the economic recovery is advancing at a snail’s pace, further restricting air travel.
Industry-wide, however, the situation may not be as bad as we had expected. Perhaps John Douglass, president and chief executive officer of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), summed it up best when he said, "The bottom is not falling out of the industry." Those may not sound like words of hope, but given the despair immediately after 9/11, they do suggest encouragement.
Douglass’ comment essentially served as the introduction to his talk at the 37th annual year-end review and forecast luncheon in Washington, D.C., in mid-December. He told aviation professionals and journalists that 2001 was a surprisingly strong year for the U.S. aerospace industry, generating some $151 billion in sales. Had it not been for 9/11, he said, the industry would probably have reached $154 billion, which would match the record-high sales of 1999. AIA projects $144 billion in industry sales in 2002, a reduction from 2001 due to a "contraction on the civil side."
AIA is not alone in predicting an industry slowdown. At this year’s National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) show, Honeywell revised its annual business aviation forecast to show "a slight reduction in deliveries" in 2002 (see "Industry Scan").
In addition to predicting industry sales, AIA’s Douglass noted some critical issues that concern the aerospace sector. For example, he pointed to the steady decline in aerospace employment. Citing both efficiency in production (the good news) and the economic downturn (the bad news), he said that between 65,000 and 70,000 jobs have been lost recently, with more layoffs expected in 2002. "These are highly skilled workers," said Douglass, "and we do not want to see them depart the industry."
The AIA president and CEO warned also of too little funding for research and development for the civil side of aerospace. "In the old days, you used to spin off from defense, but more and more [military technology] has very little application to civil…The place to look in our [federal] budget is in NASA, and the NASA budget has been more or less flat for 10 years.
The aerospace industry faces many issues. I would add to Douglass’ list an issue that has gained particular importance since 9/11. While new technologies in air traffic management, such as augmented satellite navigation, march forward, some airlines are struggling to stay aloft. Now more than ever, agencies such as Eurocontrol and FAA must build sound business cases for new technologies. There can be no false promises. The airlines will equip for new systems, but only if the payback is assured and reasonably soon in coming.
Resolve these and other issues and, a year from now, we may be able to say something more positive than "the bottom is not falling out."