This time of evolution from radar to GPS guided flight was described to me recently as “a period of dramatic and revolutionary change” by Nancy LoBue at the Federal Aviation Administration. She is not alone in this characterization.
Using global positioning information, airliners can fly shorter more direct routes to their destinations, engage in continuous descent approaches and narrow the space between planes as they fly. It’s a whole new world and its long overdue according to Ken Shapero, of Naverus an advanced navigation company that is part of GE Aviation.
“Today, we allow aircraft to navigate up to the boundaries of the terminal area, where controllers essentially take control, sequencing the aircraft by issuing specific headings, speeds and altitudes. This is not the most efficient way to handle traffic in the terminal area,” he told me.
With this in mind, one would think the airline industry would be thrilled with the Federal Aviation Administration, which on Thursday issued a new rule mandating that all airliners be equipped with Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast (ADS–B) technology by 2020. But one would be wrong.
I’m not going to get into the details of ADS-B, RNAV, RNP or any other part of the alphabet soup that makes up the much-touted, long-anticipated Next Generation Aviation System. What’s important here is that the kind of technology that lets parents know where their cell-phone equipped teenagers are, is coming soon to an airplane near you. And then it will improve efficiency, accuracy and performance.
Last year Bob Smith, the vice president of advanced technologies for Honeywell Aerospace described to me some of the capabilities of these satellite-based GPS systems, “The ultimate goal is to be able to push back, roll to the runway, take off and land and go to the gate all without ever having to hit the brakes.”
But to turn those capabilities into reality, airlines must install the equipment on their airplanes and the FAA must modify the nation's aviation infrastructure. This is big money talk. Did I say big? I meant to say humongous. And now we are getting to the nub of the problem.
The Air Transport Association, said in a statement Thursday that it would carefully review the rule and its effects on the industry. But off the record, they complain the FAA is sloughing off to the airlines the entire cost of updating the system without sharing any of the savings that will result from shifting from radar to satellite-based systems.
Let me be clear, there’s no big resistance to adapting to the technology, the dispute is over who will pay for it and whether airlines will see a return on their investment anytime soon. An estimated 80% of U.S. airliners already have the equipment necessary to fly satellite navigation flights. See my article from last year on this subject in The New York Times.
USAirways, Continental, American and Southwest Airlines are using some aspects of satellite navigation. But the FAA has resisted requests by these operators that they be allowed to use their advanced capabilities to the fullest. Take the case of Southwest Airlines. The airline invested significantly so that it could fly continuous descent approaches at every airport it serves. But despite the fuel and time saving advantages, the FAA would not allow Southwest specially designed landings. So Southwest is dressed for the party but has no way to get there.
“There is a real distrust in the FAA’s ability to get this done and to do it in a reasonable time frame,” someone familiar with the Southwest situation told me.
Notably, this kind of criticism of the FAA stops short of the administrator, Randy Babbitt. Perhaps because he was the chairman of the task force overseeing the implementation of next-gen technology, several people say the decision to mandate ADS-B within the next 10 years is due largely to his perseverance and advocacy
At a news conference in Washington, D.C., Babbitt said, "We can appreciate the difficult economic times airlines have been through. It's been a tough economic two or three years for them, and the capital expenditure is going to be difficult, and I think that's the core of their concern."
"Tough economic two or three years" may be a bit of an understatement considering the industry claims of losing $65 billion since September 11, 2001. One can anticipate Capitol Hill lobbying will begin in earnest as airlines seek financial help for these expensive upgrades.
Considering how quickly after his appointment, Babbitt was able to calm the agency's years-long contract dispute with its air traffic controllers, my bet is that he will find a compromise and make peace with the airline industry on this subject. After all, when it comes to beneficiaries, there are no losers in next-gen.