Satellite-Based Air Traffic Management Keeping the Airline Industry Aloft

By | September 1, 2008 | Feature, Government

The airline industry is a major economic driver around the globe, but the system is reaching the limits of its capacity. How will the satellite industry play a key role in keeping airlines flying and the economy growing?

For more than 50 years, the United States has been using an air traffic management system based on World War 2-era ground-based radar, and the system is showing the strain under today’s volume. The push to modernize air traffic control — with satellite technology playing a key role — has long been proposed as a way to keep up with the growing airline industry, and as some aircraft operators now look for every possible way to save fuel, a satellite-based system can help in that regard as well.

"Look at where we are now," says Peter Dumont, president of the Air Traffic Control Association. "United Airlines is putting aircraft in the desert. They are flying less aircraft because of the fuel prices. They are flying bigger aircraft to get more passengers while flying less aircraft. This will help capacity in the short run." And the FAA continues to forecast a rebound for air travel. In July, the agency estimated that the number of people who fly in the United States is expected to jump from 769 million in 2007 to 1 billion in 2016, and the International Air Transport Association, which represents some 240 airlines comprising 94 percent of scheduled international air traffic, is predicting that Asia will become the largest aviation market in the world by 2010.

NextGen

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) first initiated development of a satellite-based air traffic control system early in the 21st century, but the effort was pushed aside due to the slowdown in air travel following the Sept. 11 attacks. A less ambitious program was revived as global air travel rebounded in the middle of the decade, but instead of a full satellite-based system, the program focused on augmenting navigation signals from GPS satellites through programs such as Raytheon’s Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS). But as air travel continued to flourish, the FAA proposed the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), a wide-ranging transformation of the entire national air transportation system intended as a way to meet future capacity demands and avoid gridlock in the sky and at airports. The program will move air traffic management away from the legacy ground-based technologies to a satellite-based system.

The backbone of NextGen will be the Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) system, which will use GPS signals to provide air traffic controllers and pilots with much more accurate information and allow the separation standards between aircraft to be reduced, which will provide increased capacity in the nation’s skies. Transponders aboard the aircraft will receive GPS signals and use them to determine the aircraft’s precise position in the sky. This data is combined with other information and broadcast to other aircraft and air traffic control facilities. When ADS-B is fully operational, pilots and controllers will see the same real-time displays of air traffic, improving safety and helping alleviate the delays that have become more common among the airline industry.

"NextGen is a relative term that captures a number of specific programs, but a common major component is a transition to a satellite-based navigation as opposed to terrestrial-based," says Bob Jackson, program manager for Raytheon for the GPS-Aided Geosynchronous Augmented Navigation System, or GAGAN, an effort to provide satellite-based navigation for civil aviation across South and East Asia. "So to the extent that many capabilities such as ADS-B are built on a foundation of a very high capability, robust satellite navigation — WAAS, MSAS (Japan’s Multi-functional Satellite Augmentation System) and GAGAN are all part of that capability."

ITT Corp. received a contract from the FAA in August to begin work on the ADS-B system, winning the contract in a competition with Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. Under an initial three-year contract with a value of $207 million, ITT will develop, deploy and test their system as well as install ground infrastructure. The FAA has been testing the ADS-B system in Juno, Alaska, since 2000, and phase one of ADS-B is scheduled to be rolled out by 2010. The initial effort will include about 300 ground stations placed around the Gulf of Mexico; Juno, Alaska; Louisville, Ky.; and Philadelphia, and ITT is required to enable the system to cover the entire United States by 2013.

"ITT is installing over 768 antennas all across the United States that will give complete coverage," says David Whitman, president of Sunhillo Corp., an ADS-B integrator and subcontractor for ITT. "These are dispersed to cover all of the airspace across the United States. It is like an Internet network where traffic is bidirectional. The aircraft sends it own position and in return receives the position of all the planes around it, plus weather information and other flight data information. The airplanes are like Internet nodes."

The complex development of ADS-B involves multiple companies. UPS Airlines has been involved in the development, acting as a laboratory for the FAA, NASA, other airlines and development partners by providing test data used to develop and refine the situational awareness technology. Since receiving operational approval from the FAA in January, UPS has been conducting weekly tests of the latest version of ADS-B, called SafeRoute, on approaches to Louisville International Airport, which is home to Worldport, the company’s international air hub. "Early data suggests that UPS will be able to reduce fuel consumption by 40 to 70 gallons per landing, noise by 30 percent and nitrous oxide emissions by 34 percent as well as increase landing capacity by 10 percent to 15 percent," says Mike Mangeot, a spokesman for UPS Airlines.

"The aircraft sends it own position and in return receives the position of all the planes around it, plus weather information and other flight data information. The airplanes are like Internet nodes."

— Whitman, Sunhillo

Another FAA partnership with the Helicopter Association International, platform and helicopter companies, platform owners and helicopter operators will help introduce the coverage to the Gulf of Mexico by November 2009. The absence of radar coverage over water restricts capacity over the Gulf of Mexico due to the separation procedures needed to maintain safety. Under the $100 million agreement, the FAA will install ADS-B ground stations on oil platforms, and the platform owners will provide space for these ground stations. The helicopter operators will provide transportation to and from the platforms and equip some of their fleet with ADS-B avionics.

"The driving factors are the cost that can be saved by more direct flights and profitable flights," says Whitman. "Currently, they do not do point-to-point flights that follow pathways of roads in the sky, and if it is not the most direct point, there is a big opportunity for savings."

Satellite technology also will help provide advanced communications to aircraft. A satellite-based system dubbed Advanced Technologies and Oceanic Procedures will take advantage of cockpit digital communications rather than the voice communications used today. Satellite data link communication will reduce the manual workload for controllers, improving their ability to handle requests from airlines for more efficient routes over the ocean. The system already is in use at the three en route centers that handle oceanic traffic — New York, Oakland and Anchorage. Data collected by weather satellites, along with information from ground and airborne sensors, will be used to help mitigate the impact of weather delays. The NextGen Network Enabled Weather system will serve as the core of the NextGen weather support services and provide a common weather picture across the national airspace system. These services will, in turn, be integrated into other components of NextGen, according to the FAA.

Funding

Planning and implementing NextGen is being carried out by a public-private partnership called the Joint Planning and Development Office, which is made up of representatives from the U.S. Departments of Transportation, Defense, Homeland Security, Commerce, the FAA, NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy along with support from the private sector. Over the next five years, the FAA’s investment portfolio for NextGen will require an estimated $4.6 billion, the agency says. That total is made up of $4.3 billion in air traffic organization capital and $300 million in research. These funds are provided in the fiscal year 2008 budget, but based on the current NextGen plan, major investments also will need to be made beginning in fiscal year 2013 and running through fiscal year 2017. Total FAA spending over the first 10 years of the program is expected to range from $8 billion to $10 billion, and estimates through 2025 range from $15 billion to $22 billion in FAA investments, the agency says.

The NextGen Financing Reform Act of 2007 has yet to be fully funded, but if enacted, it will provide up to $5 billion in debt financing authority beginning in fiscal year 2013 to support NextGen-related capital needs and accelerate the transition to NextGen. The FAA has proposed a hybrid funding structure with three funding sources for FAA services: fees for air traffic and certification services, taxes and the general fund.

The other potential funding issue will come from the airlines, which will need to upgrade equipment on their aircraft but are reporting larger and larger losses as the cost of fuel shoots up. "The problem is will the airlines equip now for ADS-B, and do they think that it is the solution? I do not believe that they are convinced yet," says Peter Dumont, president of the Air Traffic Control Association. "What are the motivators to equip? You get faster times if more of your company’s aircraft are going into an airport because you are equipped? And those are the problems. Until the airlines buy into ADS-B solution, and they see a motivation, attachment or an incentive, they will not voluntarily equip."

Holding Mode?

ADS-B is not in a concept stage. It is a mature technology that has been used in the United States and in Australia. "There is a worldwide movement towards ADS-B, and there are a lot of airplanes that will need to be equipped. I would say that there is a substantial demand," says Jackson.

However, with funding not yet certain, the FAA vision of a satellite-based air traffic management system is in a holding pattern. "NextGen is a strategic program for the FAA and also for Congress," says Whitman. "The basic value of the program is solid. It provides increased traffic and saves fuel. All the studies show that the U.S. air space capacity will be extremely strained in the next six to seven years unless something is done."

The satellite industry, airline industry, manufacturers, pilots, the FAA and other stakeholders all have an interest in making NextGen a reality, but it looks like the economy may take a bite out of the vision of an aviation superhighway controlled by satellites.

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