Editor's Note

Editor’s Note: Predicting the Recovery

By David Jensen | April 1, 2003
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It is not a scientific study. Still the survey that Helios Technology conducted at the previous two Maastricht air traffic control (ATC) shows in the Netherlands is interesting, if only to gauge the viewpoints of fellow aerospace professionals.

Helios Technology (www.helios-tech.com) is a London—based technical consultancy that specializes in air traffic management (ATM). It conducts studies and cost-benefit analyses; works on standards development, modeling and simulation; sponsors seminars; and provides procurement support, project management and financial planning. The seven-year-old firm claims expertise in such ATM technologies as Mode S for surveillance, satellite communication and navigation, flight data processing and VHF digital links, among others.

At the Maastricht show, Helios prominently positions a computer at its stand. Company officials encourage show attendees to input their answers to several questions shown on the computer screen. At the 2003 Maastricht show, 159 attendees completed Helios’ survey. That’s not a large sample, but it is substantial, as it represents a fairly homogeneous group of people in terms of education, profession and gender, i.e., largely males who are schooled and working in technology. Geographically, most respondents probably have European addresses, though Maastricht does draw sizable North American participation.

Helios’ survey suggests a general pessimism among respondents regarding the aviation industry’s near-term future. In 2002 most Maastricht show attendees optimistically believed the industry would recover this year. But at the 2003 show, a majority indicated that a recovery is not expected prior to 2005, and more than 30 percent said it would come even later. To be fair, the attendees who believe 2004 will see an industry turnaround almost reached a majority.

Respondents to the Helios survey apparently have yielded to the fact that the infrastructure development they are involved in will take longer to implement than once was expected–probably in part because of the development’s complexity, as well as its lack of funding. When asked whether they thought the Single European Sky initiative would be fully achieved by 2010, only 16 percent responded in the affirmative.

Now, again, this survey is conducted randomly, not scientifically. And the Maastricht show attendees generally are not experts in world economics. But it probably is safe to assume that short-term expectations throughout the civil aviation industry are not high.

And for good reason. In the United States, airline financial losses are breaking records. Funding that can be scraped together must be earmarked for security initiatives, not safer, more efficient airspace use. And the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is forced to advance only those new technologies that require little investment by airlines and itself. The outlook in Europe is brighter, but only marginally so.

Perhaps stronger than the belief that the aviation industry’s recovery is not imminent, is the frustration brought by the delay in implementing the steady flow of new technology. Technologies spawned during the go-go 1990s are ready to accelerate into a test or operational phase but instead are being constrained. Examples include programs, in both Europe and the United States, involving satellite navigation, automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) and controller-pilot data link communications (CPDLC). There is no consensus path within the U.S. community at least, about data link programs, said a prominent speaker at a recent RTCA symposium. "Investment strategies [for data link programs] are completely disaligned," he added.

Alluding to the rare convergence of economic and security factors into a "perfect storm"–FAA Administrator Marion Blakey has spoken of a new strategic plan that will set clear and measurable goals with the current circumstances in mind.

Interestingly, the folks at Helios also asked Maastricht show attendees which technology will have the greatest short-term impact on aviation. Most respondents (37 percent) selected increased automation–for example, CPDLC. The second-largest response (21 percent) was for airborne separation, using ADS-B and aircraft separation assurance (or assistance) system (ASAS). Other technologies selected as promising were satellite navigation (18 percent), Mode S and satellite or broadcast communications (8 percent each). A few attendees had no opinion.

At the Maastricht show, as well as at the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) show in the United States and at many other aviation events, displays of new technologies abound. What’s apparent is that the advances flooding forth will have to slow in pace until an economic recovery catches up to accommodate them–hopefully before, or certainly no later than 2005.

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