[Satellite News 05-14-12] The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has initiated an effort to accelerate the development of satellite-based air traffic control systems in the United States by issuing a $2.77 prime contract to ITT Corp. and a subcontract to GE subsidiary Naverus to create NextGen technology that will allow aircraft to fly more directly to their destinations.
The FAA and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood confirmed the contracts May 14. “NextGen will help deliver an environmentally friendly, more efficient traveling experience for the flying public,” LaHood said in the announcement.
ITT and Naverus will develop Required Navigation Performance (RNP) approach procedures into five U.S. airports: Ted Stevens Anchorage International, James M. Cox Dayton International, Kansas City International, Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport and Syracuse Hancock International. The two companies will be responsible for designing, implementing and maintaining a total of 10 procedures, or two for each airport.
Acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the effort would supplement the administration’s current project to develop 305 RNP procedures for airports across the United States. “The FAA will closely monitor the work to make sure all safety and environmental steps are conducted properly,” said Huerta.
The FAA awarded the contracts to ITT Naverus through a competitive process under its System Engineering 2020 contract — a portfolio of work designed to help the agency rollout NextGen. The FAA’s fiscal year 2012 budget included appropriations to fund a private sector contractor deal and to develop and deliver NextGen procedures. The FAA Reauthorization Bill, activated earlier this year, called for the agency to demonstrate the ability of a contractor to design, implement and maintain these procedures.
“If you imagine highways in the sky, then these are high-speed off ramps,” said Huerta. “Aircraft using RNP approaches make a more direct and efficient approach into the airport, also decreasing fuel burn.”
Aircraft navigation services hold great potential for satellite companies. The FAA said an impressive performance from satellite in making airlines more efficient could help convince U.S. Congress to fund an infrastructure upgrade project that could inject $42 billion into the satellite/aerospace industry. The FAA’s current radar-based system is more than 60 years old.
In April, Alaska Airlines announced it would test a new air traffic control system in 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. Alaska Airlines 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 issued with the test confirmation. “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.”
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.
FAA directors have recently 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 administration 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 October 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.”
Several satellite companies involved with the air traffic control 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 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 system as its prime contractor.
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.