Building the Future Today

28 February 2006 (Last Updated February 28th, 2006 18:30)

The aviation industry is not just waiting for the future to happen, says Nicholas Sabatini of the FAA. It is trying to build its own vision of the future by developing and deploying the latest technologies.

Building the Future Today

The safety advantages of a performance-based National Airspace System (NAS) are so compelling that the aviation industry must do all it can to exploit this technology, for safety reasons as much as for the efficiency and environmental benefits.

After all, the safety stakes are high in the air transport industry. According to ICAO, the world's airlines carried 1.9 billion passengers last year, and that figure is projected to top two billion in the next few years – that is nearly six times as many people as live in the USA.

"The aviation industry has an obligation to exploit the latest technologies to improve operational efficiency and safety."

Moreover, these are only the people travelling on airlines. When you include the hundreds of thousands who fly on corporate and private aircraft and then consider the increasing complexity of our air transport system, you begin to get a picture of the magnitude of the air transport industry's responsibility and obligation to do what it can to raise safety levels.

THEN AND NOW

The industry in the USA is changing fast. Last year at this time, the industry was talking about the potential benefits of Required Navigation Performance (RNP) at US airports such as Ronald Reagan Washington National, Palm Springs, Portland and San Francisco. Today several carriers are realising the safety and capacity benefits right now.

In the recent past, we were talking about introducing unmanned aircraft systems into the NAS for civil use. Now, an Experimental Airworthiness Certificate has been issued to the General Atomics Altair. Another Experimental Airworthiness Certificate will be issued shortly, and six more applications are pending.

A working group is developing policy for the safe introduction of unmanned aircraft systems, while certificates of operation continue to be issued to authorise limited operations.

We were also talking about the coming trend of Very Light Jets (VLJs). These aircraft are much closer to reality today, with nearly 3,000 on order books, more than 20 models in development, three manufacturers flight testing and Eclipseset about to begin deliveries in early 2006.

By 2016, FAA forecasters predict that as many as 4,000 VLJs could be in use. And that forecast could be low.

NEXT-GENERATION SYSTEMS

The future has arrived. This year we are seeing more and more benefits from technologies driving a performance-based NAS. The transformation of our air transportation system has begun.

The Joint Planning and Development Office is developing plans for 2025 with the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NGATS). The system will allow safer and more efficient movement of people and goods throughout the USA and around the world.

"Aviation will not become safer by using technology alone."

It will be a smarter system that will allow pilots to have greater control of their flight paths, and it will deliver vastly improved situational awareness through greater use of technologies such as ADS-B.

The system will be flexible enough to accommodate whatever type and mix of aircraft we might see in our skies by 2025.

The foundation of that 2025 NGATS system will be a performance-based airspace system, where the required navigation, communications and surveillance performance is set out. The FAA is building the future right now by acting as an enabler and by collaborating with the air transport industry.

The FAA is supporting the near-term objectives of the operational evolution plan and implementing RNP approaches.

It is also putting in place area navigation (RNAV) Standard Instrument Departure (SID) procedures that make much better use of departure corridors – RNAV is a method of navigation that permits aircraft operation on any desired flight path. These departure corridors provide more consistent tracks and are more efficient, since they don't rely on ground-based navigation aids.

At Atlanta Airport, where departures fly RNAV tracks, Delta Air Lines reports savings of $30m a year on fuel alone from implementing RNAV procedures. At Dallas / Fort Worth (DFW), RNAV departures save American Airlines up to $50m a year.

We are also seeing DFW departure capacity gains of about 7% to 8%. And we are witnessing reduced in-trail separation times due to track conformance and early 'fanning' to an increased number of departure gates.

It is not just carriers who realise benefits from the pre-programmed RNAV procedures. The ATO reports an up to 50% reduction in controller-pilot communications.

Controllers are able to focus more on monitoring and assessing the flow of traffic, rather than issuing a series of aircraft vectors. Fewer transmissions translate into less frequency congestion and more availability for key communications from both controllers and pilots.

The industry can now measure the success of its collaboration across the aviation community every time an RNP approach is flown. While another big indication of industry success is the fact that ICAO is adopting its work as the worldwide standard.

"While new technology can bring critical benefits, it can also introduce new risks."

The industry is sharing what it knows and lessons learned. In
June 2005, the FAA signed a statement on joint strategy for the implementation of performance-based navigation in North America with counterparts in Canada and Mexico.

The air transport industry is working with UPS to combine RNP / RNAV and ADS-B. Once ATC assigns the aircraft a position in the queue with the use of a sequencing tool, there is no further input from the controller.

The flight crew will configure the aircraft for a constant descent approach while merging and spacing themselves with other aircraft. ADS-B greatly improves situational awareness in the air and on the airport surface.

But the future is about more than just technology. Aviation will not become safer using technology alone. While new technology can bring critical benefits, it can also introduce new risks, risks which we must fully understand, analyse and mitigate, but which should not be allowed to slow us down.

THE FAA AS ENABLER

The FAA, and in particular the FAA's Office of Aviation Safety, can help in the safe and efficient introduction of new technologies. For example, working alongside industry, the FAA now allows the use of enhanced flight vision systems for instrument approaches.

Gulfstream and Bombardier jets now have certified enhanced flight vision systems, and the size of the heads-up displays and sensors are being reduced. Most importantly, the cost of the technology is falling. This trend will continue as industry puts other promising technologies, such as synthetic vision, on the flight deck.

The FAA has also acted as an enabler in a collaboration that led to the certification and operational approval of the Electronic Flight Bag (EFB).

It started with the publication of the EFB advisory circular in March 2003. This advisory circular signalled the potential of EFBs. Now we are seeing the proliferation of EFB designs and software.

At the air carrier level, the Boeing 777 can now be ordered with a Class 3 EFB. This allows the depiction of charts and an airport surface-moving map with an 'own ship' position overlay.

"The FAA is playing a key role in facilitating collaborations within the aviation community."

Soon, I expect to see at least one major airline start equipping with a Class 2 EFB that will provide even more capabilities, including graphical weather depictions in the cockpit.

The benefits of EFBs are clear: it takes less time to locate information and more decision and flight planning support tools are available. These benefits helped drive collaboration between the FAA and industry to achieve consensus and allow the EFB advisory circular to be issued.

Here are the three things that will be key to the government-industry collaborative successes seen thus far:

  • Early partnership and involvement combined with a 'can do' attitude
  • Strong technical support from both the FAA and industry
  • Good, open communications

The best way to predict the future is to create it, and that is what the aviation community is doing with RNP, RNAV and ADS-B. It will continue to do so with technologies to come, as it moves surely, steadily and safely towards a performance-based NAS.

The aviation community is exploiting technology to improve safety, and it is doing it together every day. Together, it is creating a safer and stronger future for aviation.