Successful FAA Satellite Air Traffic Test Could Pump $42 Billion into Industry

[Satellite News 04-05-12] Alaska Airlines will test a new air traffic control system this June in Seattle that uses satellite service to navigate aircraft and allow airport controllers to keep a constant watch on each plane in their range. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said an impressive performance result could help convince U.S. Congress to fund an infrastructure upgrade project that could inject $42 billion into the satellite/aerospace industry.

   Alaska Airlines confirmed the testing program April 4, and said it hopes that the new satellite technology will help reduce delays and save on fuel as it changes the method in which planes land on runway.
   “More than 30 miles will be cut from the plane’s approach when we use satellite technology,” the airline said in a company statement. “We can use the system to take a much more direct path towards the airport. Pilots will not have to circle around overhead waiting to be cleared to descend to the airport, therefore saving valuable fuel by using the throttle, then coasting and then using it again. This landing process is much more efficient and will reduce airspace congestion and even flight costs.”
The FAA’s current radar-based system is more than 60 years old.
   The Seattle experiment with Alaska Airlines will be the first extensive use of satellite technology for air traffic control after many years of fighting with the U.S. government over the projected $42 billion project.
   Commercial airlines have long fought to implement the enormous program and, according to an industry-government report issued late last year, urged the FAA to accelerate the implementation of onboard satellite-based navigation systems on airlines, claiming that the satellite systems would allow pilots to plot more precise airport-approach routes.
   The airlines also suggested that the FAA leverage short-term benefits of air-traffic control modernization before replacing ground-based radar networks with onboard satellite-based systems. “[The FAA] should emphasize interim upgrades to airport approaches that allow carriers to use existing onboard navigation equipment to trim fuel costs, reduce pollution and alleviate airport congestion. New procedures would save money by clearing aircraft to approach airports on more gradual descents, which could save fuel because pilots could proceed toward their landings at slower speeds under reduced power,” U.S. commercial airline representatives wrote in the report.
   The FAA has dealt with the issue of short-term improvements in the past few years for airborne traffic control and its directors have pushed for complex revisions of procedures and practices to give pilots authority to determine their own flight paths, ensure safe separation from nearby aircraft and assume other tasks now handled by controllers on the ground.
   The FAA set up a committee of industry executives and a wide range of experts in October that recommended using federal loan guarantees or other financial incentives to help airlines with long-term cockpit upgrades. “The FAA must do more to help airlines realize near-term benefits of satellite-based flight paths that permit pilots to fly shorter, more fuel-efficient descents and runway approaches,” the committee wrote in the report. “Currently, four out of 10 airliners have the necessary equipment, though not all crews have been trained for such approaches. FAA implementation needs to precede retrofits.”
   The technology that Alaska Airlines is testing for the FAA is not necessarily new, as it has used satellite technology in rugged areas to auto-direct planes to the runway with pinpoint accuracy in zero-visibility weather situations.
   Several satellite companies involved with the process received FAA contracts last July. In that month, the FAA granted approval for the use of Iridium data services to transmit Air Traffic Control (ATC) communications from airplanes in oceanic airspace and a 10-year, $85 million contract extension to Harris Corp. to continue developing the Alaskan Satellite Telecommunications Infrastructure (ASTI) system as its prime contractor.
   “We know the vital importance of communications to the FAA’s mission and the trust the FAA puts in us to ensure that new technology is transitioned in a manner that does not impact Alaskan air traffic operations,” said Harris Mission Critical Networks Vice President John O’Sullivan.
   Harris replaced and upgraded the existing satellite communications network that links the Alaskan Air Route Traffic Control Center in Anchorage with 64 FAA facilities throughout the region. The work order included 59 remote sites, three flight service stations and a test and training facility. Harris’ teammates on the program included: General Dynamics Satcom Technologies; General DataComm; Comtech EF Data; DHL Logistics; and Rockwell Collins Satellite Communications Services.
   The Iridium authorization was the result of a five-year FAA evaluation for aircraft flying in airspace under FAA jurisdiction to use Future Air Navigation System (FANS) 1/A over Iridium to meet communications requirements for air traffic control.
   Despite the help of the private sector, the FAA admitted that implementing the technology on a national level with government support would be challenging. The satellite system requires the FAA to reconfigure flight patterns and equip all airplanes with tracking devices. Industry analysts estimated that retrofitting an older jet could cost as much as $340,000 per vehicle.

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