Demand for air travel is returning, and passenger traffic is expected to double in the coming decades. In the United States, Europe and elsewhere, a fundamental shift is taking place in air-traffic control systems and procedures to accommodate and better manage this growth.
The vision of NextGen in the U.S. and SESAR in Europe depends on managed as opposed to controlled airspace, with aircraft operators, air navigation service providers and airports working collaboratively to execute optimized, gate-to-gate operations. Aided by enhanced automation and decision-making tools, the practice of air-traffic flow management will support increased airspace capacity, more efficient operations and reduced fuel burn and emissions. Aircraft equipped for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast position reporting, performance-based navigation and controller/pilot datalink communications will take full advantage of system efficiencies.
What are the requirements for global air-traffic management (ATM), and what is being done by industry and government to achieve this vision? What are the obstacles? For answers to these questions, Avionics Magazine assembled industry leaders in technologies and strategies supporting ATM development for our recent webinar, Issues in Air Traffic Management. This article is adapted from that discussion.
âž¤ Neil Planzer, vice president Global ATM Solutions, Boeing ATM:
In 1959, American Airlines ran an ad that shows the Boeing 707. The headline advertises 4 1/2 hours, coast to coast on American’s jet flagships. You look at that ad and you try to understand that in 1959 they could fly coast to coast in 4 1/2 hours. Fifty-one years later, it takes six hours.
Clearly, the ability to manage air traffic control in order to enhance the movement of aircraft has not kept pace with the technology. The airplanes today are more reliable, are faster, and yet the times between most city pairs, in fact all city pairs, have exceeded what they were in 1959.
The technologies that were necessary to establish the (air-traffic control) system as it operated in 1959 are the same we use today. However, the technology no longer has the same valid emphasis that it had then. Airplanes do know where they are. They can be able to see each other. They don’t need third parties on the ground to help navigate and, in some cases, they may not need them for separation.
So, what is NextGen? NextGen has two paths it can follow. It can continue on the modernization of equipage on the ground. It can replace radars with ADS-B as a surveillance alternative. It can work on overlaying RNP (Required Navigation Performance) routes and GLS (GNSS Landing System) approaches. It can add technology to the ground infrastructure.
All of that is technology modernization and insertion. It is not a transformational system.
The two roads are that we either continue the ability to modernize and use technology replacement or we look for a transformational system that meets growing needs. What’s missing eight years into NextGen? It’s the same things that were needed in the beginning of NextGen. It is no clear ability to understand how we are going to link airplanes to the infrastructure. We’re in a seventh generation jet aircraft, but we are still using second generation air traffic control as the source of control.
Metrics are a key way to change the way we’re doing business. Otherwise, we’ll never get to a transformational system, because people do what they’re measured against
— Neil Planzer, Boeing Air Traffic Management.
In order to link that airplane, we have to have a clear understanding of the avionics that need to be on the airplane. We still do not have a clear understanding of the avionics. We also have to have a concept of operations that allows us to operate in a mixed fleet environment and to determine, when a tipping point of enough airplanes are equipped, whether doing hot routes to designated runways increases capacity at airports. Because if you don’t have a tipping point, you wind up decreasing the capacity of the airport.
The clarity on how we go forward, on how we’re going to use SWIM (System Wide Information Management), how we’re going to use avionics, how we’re going to measure separation criteria … all of those things would determine the technology we buy. What happened in this program is we bought the technology and now we’re trying to determine how we’re going to use it.
When we go to an airline, a customer of Boeing’s, and say ‘we’d like you to buy avionics for ADS-B In and Out,’ the answer we get is, ADS-B Out? Why would we do that? We get no business case from it. ADS-B In? When are you going to (install) data communications? When are we going to put new displays in the airplane? The retrofit cost to do each segment is enormous, ranging between $2 billion or $3 billion for commercial fleets and even more for some of the general aviation and military fleets.
If you keep doing that, it takes five to seven years using heavy checks to change the equipage. If you keep adding one piece at a time, you’re taking half steps to the wall and you’ll never close that part of the process. You’ll never get to implementation of NextGen.
We should change the way we measure success from activities to outcomes.
We know we have a wonderfully implemented program using ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast), a well-managed, good program that is on time, on budget. The measurement of it is (by number of) ground stations implemented. That’s an activity metric and from a program manager (perspective) that’s what they need to do and I think that’s a good program. I want to make that absolutely clear that (ADS-B) is a well-run government program.
But what’s the outcome? The outcome has to say, am I reducing city pair times or gate-to-gate travel times? Is the accident rate improving? Am I indicating a better ability to identify and decrease precursors to accidents? Is runway utilization capacity increasing? If I can get one more airplane per hour at Chicago, that’s a big deal, very cost effective.
Are the FAA’s unit costs of operation decreasing? If we are putting all this technology out there and we’re still going to manage the radars and the ILSs (instrument landing systems) and we’re still going to have 22 centers and we’re still going to have all the current infrastructure we have today, I guess the question would be why we’re doing it. Because if I can’t reduce the cost of operations, I can’t reduce the hard particle emissions by reducing fuel consumption. If I can’t reduce fuel consumption by reducing city pairs, I don’t know why we’re doing it.
You would (apply) metrics like these to measure success. They are outcome metrics. It would be like Boeing designing an airplane by building it and then figuring out how it will perform. Obviously, you determine what performance metrics you need, what are the outcomes, what is the weight it can carry, how many passengers it can carry, how far it can go, how much fuel burn it has — and then you build the airplane to achieve all of those outcome metrics. You don’t just put it together and see what you can get from it.
Metrics are a key way to change the way we’re doing business. Otherwise, we’ll never get to a transformational system, because people do what they’re measured against.
When you look to fund the avionics, this is an idea (see graphic, Page 22).We’ve run it by some people. Third-party financing — an airline goes to a capital firm and they borrow the money. They have a 7- to 10-year payback period, outcome metrics, and the revenue stream between a city pair, like New York to Chicago, which is 150 flights a day. If you could (accomplish a) 15-minute savings per flight over a three-year period, it would be about $90,000 a day. Sixty percent — this is just notional — 60 percent of that would go to the airplane, to the airline, 40 percent to pay back the loan. The government guarantees (the loan), using outcome metrics. If the FAA does not realize the metric in three years, the government services the loan. They pay the interest. If the FAA does not achieve the outcome in the following three years, the government is in default and they pay the loan.
If you go to metrics like that, using just one city pair as an example, and there’s hundreds of important city pairs, and you try to figure out where you can implement it, this would allow you to achieve the tipping point by doing city pair regional implementations. Because airlines will drive their equipped fleet to where they can make the money and the savings. These metrics would change the way the government operates the activities of NextGen, because it will start looking to the outcomes.
If you don’t do something like this, you’re in the exact situation you are. The airplanes will not equip or if they equip, there will be no early adapters. Everybody will wait until the last minute on a mandate and understand when you mandate equipage, that doesn’t work well and it will have a lot of political ramifications. Mandates are good to close a 20 percent equipage gap, not to equip completely. The only time it is effective is when it’s a pure safety concern like TCAS. This doesn’t meet that model.
When will the FAA produce outcome benefits? There are rumors going around that they see a capacity increase between now and 2025 of 12 percent, less than 1 percent a year. That’s incredible. We’ve got to do better than that.
When will the tipping point occur? We know it’s not 100 percent, but we should know where a mixed fleet tipping point is. How long will you operate at a limited mixed fleet? If a small percentage of the fleet equips, there are no benefits. A modernized, ground-based aviation system that isn’t linked to the airplane is of no value. If you can’t start using the airplane’s capabilities to increase capacity and efficiency and (improve) carbon emissions by reducing the fuel burn, by lowering the time between city pairs, it’s of no value. You get some small, minor benefits.
How long can we invest in NextGen without outcome benefits? Increased information does not increase safety or increase capacity. If we do not have something tangible in the next five years, they’re going to shut the program down. In today’s economy, they are not going to continue to spend several billion dollars on a program that’s not producing benefit.
And without equipage, when do you stop investing in NextGen? If the airplane isn’t linked, you might as well leave it the way it is. If the government doesn’t trust the FAA to produce the benefits by the metrics, why do they think the industry would? And another alternative is to mandate equipage. We have no clarity what that equipage is and a mandate would be absolutely, virtually, impossible to get through the legislative process.
We want to drive the equipage in a way, by giving (operators) outcomes, that they can show a business case and get the early adoption. The more they adapt, the quicker they adapt, the more you reach the tipping point, the more value you get and then you can worry about an equipage mandate for the last 20 percent.
âž¤ Todd Donovan, president, Thales ATM
As we look at NextGen and SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research program), they’re both taking different approaches as a result of the political structure, the cultures and the approach to taking on the challenge of air traffic modernization. But what we see in both cases is some really good concepts have emerged. Eight years and a lot of man-hours, man-years, have been applied into looking at these issues, coming up with ideas, doing modeling and simulation.
There is a lot of discussion about technologies and gee-whiz stuff. What we really need to be focusing on is, what’s the minimum we need to do to get real operational benefits?
—Todd Donovan, Thales ATM
But the reality is that our progress toward a definitive solution has been very slow and a lot of uncertainty exists around the concepts, around the benefits they deliver, and how you’d go about implementing them and achieving them. And to further complicate things, we have regional differences in priorities that are emerging.
We can take a topic like air-ground data link and you see both in NextGen and in SESAR and at the 40,000-foot-level we’re harmonized. We both say that data link is good. But if you look at the priorities of which applications, if you look at the discussions about how to do it, we start to see some differences emerge.
So it begs the question as to whether we’re really converging or whether we’re diverging and one of the things that appears to be a critical issue is that we do have a global aviation community and an aircraft that today is operating in North America might be in Europe tomorrow and might be in Australia the day after that.
When we start talking about the capabilities that are really the linchpins to harmonization and to the ability to use fleets very flexibly, we need to make sure that we converge on the topics that are critical, like the linkage between the ground and the air, and the linkage between air-to-air and ground-to-ground, to some extent, and make sure we don’t diverge.
One of the issues that always seems to revolve around discussions of NextGen and SESAR is the question of the role of the human. There’s been a lot of discussion and a lot of speculation that NextGen means the end of controllers’ jobs and significant automation that overtakes the role of the human in the process. That’s just factually incorrect. I don’t think that’s where the end solution is.
People are always going to be in the loop, in the air and on the ground, and it’s tough to imagine that we will ever achieve a fully automated system, nor do I think that that necessarily is an end-state that we would want to achieve. But what we are seeing is we’re seeing the basic skills and comfort with technology are significantly increasing.
Most of us are walking around with some sort of a personal communication device. We have GPS. We know how to use these technologies. We’re texting. We’re doing e-mail. We have this immersive technology environment that we’re in, in our personal lives. The people who are entering the work force and the people who are our next generations of pilots and controllers and aviation professionals are much, much more comfortable with these emerging technologies than I was and the generation before me was.
We have an opportunity to re-look at workload issues and human factors, both on the flight deck and on the ground and I think we have an opportunity and responsibility, in fact, to find ways to reduce workload in areas that are fairly routine and where automation can be applied so that we can refocus that workload into areas where the human performs better than a computer does.
It’s not so much about eliminating the role of the human as much as it’s targeting humans to be focused on the things where they can do a better job and can really add the most value. (Automation of) routine work, both on the flight deck and on the ground, would free up those individuals to focus on more value-added activities like trying to solve problems of optimization of aircraft in the airspace and how to deconflict a difficult situation or handling exceptions that may happen as a result of technology failure or something else.
But there is this nagging question that remains an open issue, and that’s who is responsible and accountable between pilot, controller and automation systems, both on the ground and in the air? That’s a question to which the answer may be different in different places in the world. That’s a further complication that we’ll be dealing with as we move forward.
The final issue I want to talk about is harmonization and equipage. There is a lot of discussion about all the technologies and gee whiz stuff we can put on airplanes and on the ground and have communicate with each other. What we really need to be focusing on is what’s the minimum we need to do to get real operational benefits delivered and significant improvements in capacity, safety and efficiency?
Whether it’s ADS-B or data com, or FMS (flight management system) capabilities or something else, we need to make sure we are really creating joint gold standards in those key areas. There’s been good collaboration between RTCA and EUROCAE, but that really is critical.
When we look at a 1090 megahertz ADS-B standard, it is a global standard and we all know what it is. That enables investment of industry in technologies, equipage of aircraft and development of procedures. Even in a case like that where standardization has been fairly well coordinated, we’ve gone through some revisions and some revisions have caused people who invested early to get penalized, in effect, because they’re not up to the standard where they need to be.
We need to figure out a way to avoid that and we need to do it fairly quickly, because the time frame for getting equipage onto aircraft is long and the longer we take to set standards and to decide on that minimum capability we really need to have, the longer it is until we get to an equipage point, the tipping point, where we really starting seeing the benefits.
While there has been good collaboration, I don’t think we’re harmonized yet and I don’t think we’ve reached a consensus in operating concepts and capabilities that are going to drive the equipage. Therefore, we’re not really progressing at a rate that looks like we’re going to be able to achieve what I would call success in the time frames that have been discussed.
Either we need to change the way things are working so that we can accelerate the activity or face the reality that there’s going to be a lot of pressure — political pressure, financial pressure and otherwise, to scrap what’s happening, because it’s not achieving the vision that was laid out and the end-state that people imagined were going to be delivered.
âž¤ Jack Kies, president, Metron Aviation
When I look around the system today, I see very little that has changed in terms of the way the operation occurs. They’re still generally handled the way they’ve always been, especially with respect to the amount of time between city pairs. From my perspective, local activity continues to rule the roost, with less of a focus on what the system requires. I think, therein, we can make some pretty good arguments for moving into NextGen.
Also, the user community has made it clear that communication and coordination between facilities, FAA facilities that is to say, continues to be an issue, especially during irregular operations. And irregular operations occur frequently enough where we’ve all got beaucoup experience in that regard, but don’t seem to be able to effectively move off the dime and make the kind of changes that would make a difference in the way things are done.
When you talk about a meltdown in the Northeast because of thunderstorms or whatever the rationale, we have to do a better job in terms of how we prioritize our service to mitigate that particular problem. I think procedures are things that we could do that are very cheap in terms of cost, but they do matter in terms of safety and efficiency.
Prioritization of flights is something that I think we need to do. Everybody’s talking best equipped, best served; I’d like to see some rationale of what that might really mean. —Jack Kies, Metron Aviation
Clearly, collaboration is a significant element and has been since the early ’90s when it first took root here in the air traffic management arena. But I look at areas where we could do an even better job and I look at surface ops, where a lot of people are focusing lately.
RTCA’s Task Force 5 made it abundantly clear that that’s an area with significant low-hanging fruit. But when you look in further and take a look at ramp towers, (you) see there is a wide range of applicable procedures between ramp towers and airports. Some airports have them, some don’t. Some of them are very active, some of them are not. Some have great technology, others have virtually none.
I also think about when we run programs, ground-delay programs, for example, into an airport, we tend to pick a number for an airport that the airport can handle and don’t look, in a granular fashion, beyond that number. Using an example, if a particular air carrier is coming into an airport where 50 is the number of arrivals the airport can handle and 28 of those arrivals are going to only 14 gates, are we really doing the system a service?
I think we ought to be taking a look beyond an airport and bring airplanes in consistent with their ability to make their way to the gate, get their people on and off, and move back out again. That’s a slightly different way of doing business, but the technology is already there today. It’s just a question of affording the kind of attention to that kind of detail. It’s too broad a brush we’re taking in a good many instances, I believe.
Common situational awareness is the element that everybody talks about in the CDM world, the collaborative decision-making world, and certainly it’s proven its worth any number of times. But we have to make sure that the associated technology and data feeds are available to everybody. When that occurs, it ensures the common situational awareness everybody’s desirous of.
Another piece that bothers me a great deal is the connectivity between movement and non-movement areas at airports. NextGen portends a gate-to-gate strategy. Take any passenger who gets pushed back and take an airport and you sit in a non-movement area — I’ve seen 45 minutes before the airplane gets access to the movement area. In effect, that airplane has accumulated a 45-minute delay. But the way FAA determines delay, they don’t start the clock until the airplane reaches the movement area. We have to find a way to better connect movement and non-movement areas with respect to who’s responsible and accountable to ensure where those airplanes are in the system so they don’t get lost in the shuffle or aren’t subject to extraordinary delays.
Prioritization of flights is something I think we need to do in terms of getting ready. Everybody’s talking “best equipped, best served” and I’d like to see some rationale behind a definition of what that might really mean. In my mind, there are opportunities today where the fleet coming across the North Atlantic, for example, is clearly among the best equipped, but when they reach domestic airspace, they’re treated like anybody else, any other domestic airplane. I think there are opportunities to take that cluster of airplanes, that we know by the nature of that particular operation that they arrive about the same time, (and) dedicate a method through procedures, if nothing else, on how best to service those airplanes so they’re not vectored all around the sky, sped up and slowed down to maintain different separation criteria.
We need to prioritize that. And if we were able to do something like that — and I know we can — we’d probably learn a great deal about how we move into a best equipped, best served scenario, without worrying so much about a tipping point. We could do this right now. There is no need to wait.
I also think there’s a great need for more system thinking. There’s too much local thought applied to how airplanes move in and around the system. There needs to be a greater degree of attention paid to what it means two or three sectors down or two or three centers down in terms of what I’m doing to the system. There’s just not enough of that going on. There needs to be a greater sense of connectivity with respect to a system. We have a National Airspace System, but it almost is an oxymoron based on, often, how we actually operate within it.
How do we progress from ‘NowGen’ to ‘NearGen’ and, ultimately, NextGen? Depending on what you read, people are predicting reduced delays of 21 percent to 41 percent. Either way, there’s still a lot of delay on the table. So how can we continue to reduce delays so that a number like 21 percent will actually have some meaning behind it? I believe we need to incentivize the work force. They need to see and think and act as a system and that also needs to include the (airspace) users.
Everybody is incentivized to one degree or another and I’m not sure that we’re spending enough time understanding how to incentivize the work force to think systemically so that they’re connected to the operation and what they’re doing and their sense of what they’re doing is appreciated by the adjoining element that’s providing a service.
I think that if we can go after some of these things now, we will be able to have some of the impacts that NextGen suggests we could anticipate. These things we can do today. We can do them in a week or in a month. It doesn’t take a long time to develop some procedures and airspace modifications, especially up high, to do a couple of the things I’ve suggested.
âž¤ Ken Kaminski, vice president and general manager, Sensis Air Traffic Systems
The air traffic management system is a system and if you look at the airport surface, in particular, there’s a number of stakeholders there and not any one stakeholder has complete control of the system. For all stakeholders to be collaborating is important in the decision-making process if we really want to improve efficiency and safety and achieve some of the benefits that have been talked about already.
If you extend the idea of collaborative surface management through the metroplex … we can optimize flow and achieve the NextGen benefits that have been talked about.
—Ken Kaminski, Sensis Air Traffic Systems
We see the surface as a particular challenge, a system that you can look at and try to optimize flow and safety by sharing information. When you share information you get common situational awareness.
That may not be enough, though. If you can introduce tools and automation to assist the users in making decisions, take people who are in the loop and have them focus on the really difficult problems, we can use automation to improve the overall operation of the system and get to the kind of flow that we need.
Jack Kies of Metron Aviation talked about a link between movement area and non-movement area. Right now, if a controller’s trying to optimize flow management, he may not have visibility into the non-movement area. He can deal with aircraft when they show up in the movement area. If he did have visibility and we had a little extra time, we can improve overall flow. We could flexibly accommodate the needs of all stakeholders.
It’s a difficult environment with irregular operations weather, traffic management initiatives, a variety of things that could impact the situation on a daily basis, hour by hour. The tools that deal with that common data can improve that.
If you look at the situation on the airport surface, as things operate today, you oftentimes have aircraft showing up in the movement area on a first-come, first-served basis, and can end up with long queues of aircraft waiting for departure. Because there is no optimization of that flow, you don’t realize the benefits that you can, if you do collaborate.
What we would try to achieve with the tools that we’d implement in a collaborative environment would be taking that common situational awareness and trying to account for all of the different effects that could impact the flow. Optimize that, and do it in an equitable fashion so that you have optimized the overall operation of the system, (and) you are providing the stakeholders with visibility across the system and an optimum way of decision making in order to get that flow.
If we look broader than an airport we talked about the surface being a system but if you look a little broader than that, you could look at a metroplex as being a larger system. If you look at the flow we were talking about from arrival, through to gate operations, out to the departure, and you add other airports into that system and apply that collaboration across the entire metroplex, you can imagine getting the same types of benefits looking at that larger system.
If you extend the idea of collaborative surface management through the metroplex and take into account changes that could be happening at proximate airports, what types of TFM (traffic flow management) restrictions and other operations might be affecting the flow into particular fixes or particular airports, we can optimize the flow and achieve the NextGen benefits that have been talked about.
(There is) a question of how you potentially solve the future ATM system needs, given new technologies, and maintain safety, availability and performance levels. But in the end, the (communication, navigation, surveillance) functionalities haven’t changed a whole lot.