ATM Modernization, Commercial, Military, Unmanned

US Airlines Talk Benefits of NextGen, Impact of Drones

By Woodrow Bellamy III  | September 14, 2016
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[Avionics Magazine 09-15-2016] Executives from Alaska Airlines, JetBlue and UPS attended the annual Airlines for America (A4A) commercial aviation summit Tuesday, Sept. 14, to discuss the impact of the NextGen rollout on their operations. During the summit, the three airlines spoke to some of the ways their current and future operations are being affected by the FAA’s continued deployment of its NextGen airspace modernization program, as well as the integration of commercial Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), more popularly known as drones, into the National Airspace System (NAS). 

Photo: Alaska Airlines.

Data Comm and RNP

UPS Director of Operations Chris Williams said the biggest benefit from NextGen that UPS sees going forward is with Data Comm. While Data Comm is still currently only in the earliest Departure Clearance (DCL) phase, UPS has already tested the future en route capability of the technology. 
“We see Data Comm as an opportunity to really make the communication precise … you can upload [re-routes] into your flight management computer, so there’s no read back, there’s no correction to it. When we have done the tests at various places throughout the U.S., we find during various conditions of weather we may save two to 10 minutes,” said Williams, referring to the ability of air traffic controllers to automatically send information about re-routing aircraft around severe areas of weather in the NAS.
The FAA’s latest activity around Data Comm has been to bring the DCL capability to Salt Lake City International Airport in August. The goal is to deploy DCL at 50 ATC towers by the end of 2016, and launch the en route airspace functionality beginning in 2019. 
Alaska Airlines Senior Vice President Joseph Sprague sees the biggest benefit under NextGen coming from Performance Based Navigation (PBN). 
“We’ve been a pioneer with RNP, which is very specialized use of GPS navigation information. We pioneered that in Juneau, Alaska 20 years ago,” said Sprague. Alaska has invested in adding Required Navigation Procedures (RNP) to its entire fleet of Boeing aircraft, and estimates the use of RNP in Seattle saves them $200 per flight. “Several years ago we redesigned the approaches coming into SeaTac Airport to make the use of the airspace much more precise and to fly shorter distances and tracks coming into the airport. It allows us to offer a significant reduction in aircraft emissions for all of our flights arriving into SeaTac.”

Commercial UAS

Williams said UPS also sees big future potential uses for commercial UAS. So big, in fact, that the cargo carrier has started a pilot program in Rwanda, partnering with California-based robotics company Zipline and Gavi, in a public-private global partnership that works to increase the availability of vaccines to individuals living in developing countries. Under an $800,000 investment from the UPS foundation, within the next year Rwanda plans to begin using Zipline UAS for deliveries of blood supplies, vaccines, treatments for HIV/AIDS and other lifesaving medicines to remote areas. 
“It goes about 80 mph and within the year they envision that there’s 14 different centers that they will be able to drop blood and medicines to, and that reaches about 6 million people,” said Williams. 
Back in the U.S., UPS is also a member of the FAA’s new Drone Advisory Committee, and Williams believes the company could also possibly use UAS for aircraft inspection one day. American Airlines is also a member of the new committee. 
“Maybe some day we’ll use them for aircraft inspection as well, instead of all the different infrastructure you need to get to different heights,” said Williams. Several airlines have shown interest in using UAS for this purpose, including Easyjet, which first began testing the use of UAS for aircraft inspection in 2015. 
The airlines also discussed the safety impact of commercial UAS and commercial airliners flying in the NAS. 
“For passenger airlines, we don’t want to have an encounter with a drone and so [there are innovations being developed today] to have the right protections built around that. There are companies that can provide software for drones to essentially create geo fences within the drone so they know not to fly within the protected airspace. Encouraging technology use, as much as regulation is critically important as well,” said Sprague.

The FAA has estimated 600,000 commercial UAS will be integrated into the NAS within the next year for commercial use with the release of the agency’s new small, commercial UAS rule in August. 

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