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Avionics - Out of Place

Airlines must push through infrastructure improvements to get more mileage out of their investment in avionics equipment, advises Geoff Tudor

Modern aircraft come with a vast array of state-of-the-art navigational aids. They are there not only for safety reasons but also to save time and money and reduce CO2 emissions. Onboard avionics create numerous opportunities to improve operational efficiencies. Too often, however, their potential is dampened by antiquated ground equipment, poor air traffic management, and cumbersome regulations.

As a consequence, Rob Eagles, Director of Infrastructure, IATA, believes airlines fail to get the full value out of their investment in avionics. “There are still many roadblocks that do not allow airlines to benefit from the existing airborne capability,” he says. “A classic example is Future Air Navigation System or FANS 1/A. Boeing and Airbus implemented this technology in 2000 and yet airlines still have to use 50-year-old high frequency technology to communicate in remote and oceanic areas where FANS 1/A can’t be used.”

Regional challenges

Solving the problem isn’t straightforward. Each region is unique and comes with its own set of challenges. In Asia, there is a high reliance on procedural airspace, a preponderance of military no-fly zones, and multiple airspace boundaries. Meanwhile, route restrictions due to military restricted airspace in the Middle East result in airlines having to fly detours that can exceed 300km.

Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (RVSM) has been long overdue in Russia and the CIS States, while in Africa the ground infrastructure is inadequate and future investment is slow for many reasons, from lack of skilled maintenance to lack of capital. Central and South America have similar issues.

“Europe is a classic example of the inefficient rigidity that prohibits airlines from using the capabilities of their avionics investment,” informs Eagles. “Routing requirements are driven solely by the Route Availability Document (RAD) and the Standard Route Document (SRD) in the UK. A host of regulations are put out on an ongoing basis further imposing capacity constraints. As the RAD methodology is predicated on pre-defined entry and exit points at each state boundary, the final route flown is nothing more than a connect the dots exercise. As such, it does not reflect the most efficient route, based on all the information and capabilities in which airlines have invested.”

The EC Performance Review Commission Report (2007) estimates an average flight is 48km longer than it needs to be, which equates to over 460 million kilometers annually. The estimated cost to airlines is $2.9 billion (¤2.4 billion).  

Signs of improvement

There are some positive signs, however. For example, there is the ‘Golden Carpet’ area navigation (RNAV) route UM2009, which utilizes the satellite technology onboard modern aircraft. Operating on return flights from Dubai to Sao Paulo and Dubai to Luanda, it saves airlines 909 metric tonnes of fuel and 2,862 tonnes of CO2 annually.

Additionally, there are flexible entry and exit points across China and Mongolia and several flexible routing programs in the Pacific using the User Preferred Route (UPR) concept.

Meanwhile, Required Navigation Performance (RNP)—primarily a means of verifying an aircraft’s exact position—has been used by Alaska Airlines since the mid-1990s and is in place at 45% of the airports it serves in Alaska. “The system has been credited with saving thousands of flights from diversions or delays each year due to poor weather and airport equipment outages,” said Sarah Dalton, Alaska Airlines’ Director of Airspace Technology. “The next-generation flight guidance technology benefits passengers and airlines by providing additional flight safeguards and reducing fuel consumption.”

The United States has actually developed its own avionics roadmap. This focuses on short and medium-term development covering areas such as precision navigation, delegated separation and low visibility approach, departure, and taxiing.

While these specific examples of progress are welcome, more work needs to be done and, crucially, harmonized on a global scale. A distinction also needs to be made between what can be done today and those developments that will be realized in the long term. Traffic is growing at an average of 5% annually. Pockets of avionic upgrades, matched by ground systems, can deliver positive results. But only systemic changes will provide the comprehensive suite of improvements that are required for the future sustainability of the industry.

Global rollout

ICAO’s high level technical committee, the Air Navigation Commission (ANC), has established several panels to oversee the range of the systemic changes.

The panels are composed of a variety of experts, and IATA is actively participating. “IATA’s role is in ensuring that the avionics investments are well balanced for costs and benefits, that there is a clear understanding of the airborne requirements so that original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) can plan ahead, and that aircraft-centric systems are globally harmonized as much as possible,” explains Eagles.

A number of Global Plan Initiatives (GPIs) will be rolled out to support aircraft avionics. GPIs will involve the collaboration of all stakeholders in the value chain that promotes the efficient trajectory of any flight. In other words, informed decisions will be made by airlines that have a full data set at their disposal, including traffic, weather and performance information. IATA has been involved since the outset of the process and participates in all GPIs to support their implementation.

As part of the systemic change, Eagles points out that the notion of avionics systems and ground systems as separate entities will no longer be valid, especially for forthcoming programs like Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) and the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen system.

US airlines alone are expected to spend $20 billion from now to 2025 to accommodate next generation avionics but the equipment carries an intrinsic value.

The higher overhead costs of ground-based systems are being integrated into the cockpit at lower costs. So rather than tie up money in specific ground sites, often duplicating the availability of ground-based technology, an aircraft will function as a globally mobile navigation node. It is then that the investment in avionics would begin to pay off.

“A good example is Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast Out (ADS-B), which is enabled mainly by the Communications Navigation Surveillance (CNS) capability of aircraft avionics,” explains Eagles. “This significantly reduces the burden on maintaining a global network of radars.”

Likewise, dependency on ground-based stations that are specific to a geographic location can be replaced by virtual or remotely hosted services using communication and navigation satellite systems. Examples of this are ground very high frequency (VHF) stations in Africa, which are difficult to maintain, and achieving flight efficiencies by operating to area navigation (RNAV) waypoints instead of individual beacons on the ground.

“The comprehensive capabilities of specific aircraft are well understood by air navigation service providers (ANSPs), but the challenge for the industry is to understand which aircraft are capable of which application and when (and on a global and dynamic basis),” says Graham Lake, Director General of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO). “Unfortunately, this is not just an issue of variety of capability by aircraft type, but variety by individual air frame, even within the fleet of one operator. Even competency of the crew can be a factor.”

Lake believes the airlines and avionics providers need to work with regulators to better baseline, define and communicate existing core aircraft CNS capability. “At CANSO we can foresee an independent global database to store and disseminate this data, and to manage technical relations with aircraft operators on behalf of ANSP worldwide,” he suggests.  

The next decade

For all of this work, Eagles insists the main challenge is to ensure the airspace is seen as a precious resource and one continuum. “There are some countries that block off significant parts of their sovereign airspace for military use,” he says. “There are others, such as Portugal and Sweden that have taken the initiative to move towards removing routing restrictions and implementing free-route airspace. The main obstacles are not technological but institutional. Working together as stakeholders in a single value chain will help.”

Within the next decade, there should be several significant developments. The first phase of NextGen in the United States and SESAR will be complete and the two systems harmonized on an operational level. The European Space Agency’s Galileo in-orbit verification satellites and multiple Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) constellations should also be up and running.

“Airlines might even be enjoying a return on investment in avionics,” says Eagles. 

Case Study: Singapore Airlines

Although equipping aircraft with modern navigational and communication equipment comes at a cost, it’s an investment worth making, says Nicholas Ionides, Vice President Public Affairs, Singapore Airlines. “ADS-B provides the pilots with better situational awareness of their operating environment, for example, and air traffic controllers are able to see real-time information at a fraction of the cost of radars,” he says. With ADS-B, air traffic controllers can also allow the aircraft unrestricted climb and descent and provide earlier clearances for flights getting to their optimum cruising levels.

These all lead to corresponding gains in efficiency, which in turn helps cut down fuel consumption. Ionides says the latest avionics technology should allow seamless operations from one airspace to another, with harmonized approvals and procedural standards. “ANSPs must also do their part by upgrading the skills of air traffic controllers accordingly and investing in ground infrastructure to support such enhancements,” he concludes.

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