Monthly Archives: April 2009

NYT looks, superficially, at aviation’s fuel-saving efforts

The New York Times has joined this month’s parade of general-interest news outlets looking at how fuel efficiency is bringing changes to the airline business. This article doesn’t mention ADS-B, RNAV, or RNP, but it does mention continuous-descent arrivals. It also takes a look at efficiency-improving products like winglets and new technologies in engine design.

The following excerpt hints at NextGen and equipage issues, but doesn’t really explain either topic:

On a recent trial flight, Southwest Airlines used satellite navigation and continuous descent approaches on a round trip between Dallas and Houston and determined it could reduce fuel consumption by 6 percent.

“If we were able to reduce and get 6 percent savings across all our flights, that would equal 90 million gallons a year in fuel reduction and a reduction in carbon emissions of 1.9 billion pounds,” said Jeff Martin, Southwest’s senior director of flight operations.

Nancy Young, vice president of environmental affairs for the Air Transport Association, said that changing from a radar-based system to a satellite-based one was “a big, big thing.”

But incorporating the new flights into an older traffic infrastructure takes time. Air traffic control centers and airlines are in transition, with some updating equipment faster than others. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, about 80 percent of American airliners have the necessary devices.

Brian Will, program manager for American Airlines and a pilot, said the agency needed to do more to reward companies that make an investment in new technology. Air traffic control “is compelled to maintain a system that will accommodate everybody,” he said. “In my opinion, this is a mistake.”

The aviation authority is considering ways to expedite satellite-guided planes through the system. “Clearly there is a policy that we’re looking at right now to try and improve our delivery of services to those who are better equipped,” said Carl E. Burleson, the F.A.A.’s deputy acting administrator for policy planning and the environment.


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EXPLAINER: The state of performance-based navigation

FlightGlobal’s Aimée Turner has an excellent, multi-part overview of what’s happening in the fast-moving world of performance-based navigation (PBN). The centerpiece is this article, which brings home the point that all industry players — airframers, ANSPs, regulators, airlines — must pull together in order for the hoped-for cost and carbon savings to emerge. And even that may not be enough:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) influential report on Aviation and the Global Atmosphere said in 1999 that improvements in air traffic management and other operational procedures could reduce aviation fuel burn by up to 18%. The influence of ATM over CO2 emissions was estimated at 12%.  [..]

Phil Stollery, chairman of the [Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation] environment working group, frames those IPCC figures, however, in light of a recent CANSO study that has given the industry much greater clarity in terms of ATM’s potential contribution to the efficiency debate.

Stollery explains that efficiency in this sense is the difference between the exact point-to-point distance of a flight at the most fuel efficient altitude and speed, and the actual flight mileage flown.

“One of the things we wanted to do was to put the record straight. The IPCC report estimated that ATM had an influence over 12% of system inefficiencies and our report reflected back on that. We reckon that between 1999-2005, improvements allied to a better overall assessment, as well as the introduction of initiatives such as RVSM, generated a 4% improvement in system efficiency and that on average the global ATM system is operating at around 92% efficient today,” he says.

That is 4% down with 8% still to go.

“Of the remaining 8%, half is locked up in interdependencies. The other half, 4%, we have set at the goal to recover, which amounts to an ambitious target considering forecast growth.”

The same piece also features an excellent sidebar explaining PBN, RNAV, and RNP concepts – it’s one of the best we’ve seen.

Separately, the series also features an article about Southwest Airlines’s efforts to aggressively adopt PBN technology and procedures.

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Missing a catering cart? In-flight meal too cold? New IT automation project wants to fix that.

A technology initiative supported by Airbus and the German government wants to change the way that in-flight meals make their way to your seat.

From the press release:

The project, sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology (Germany), and being run in conjunction with Airbus, EADS and the Fraunhofer Institute, will create a system that drives operational efficiency in airline catering logistics and their supporting processes. The innovative system will track individual food trolleys allocated to specific aircraft, locate misplaced trolleys, and allow airlines to offer a better service to passengers, such as offering a wider choice of menus on flights. [..]

Dr. Giles Nelson, Senior Director of Strategy, Progress Software commented: “This is a really exciting project for us to be involved in, and one that is going to have a dramatic effect on airline catering logistics. We envisage that once the system is fully operational, not only will cost savings be realized, but passengers will obtain a range of benefits, including being able to order a meal just before the flight, specifying what time during the flight it is served to them and even being able to specify how hot the meal should be.”

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Bobby Sturgell becomes top lobbyist for Rockwell Collins

Former FAA Acting Administrator Bobby Sturgell has taken a gig with Rockwell Collins, where he’ll be the company’s top lobbyist in Washington. (Press release is here.)

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Economist: LAX, BOS should get congestion pricing

Dr. Itai Ater, an economist from Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Management, wants to see “congestion pricing” introduced at airports in order to save travelers time and airlines money.

One direct effect is that airlines spend more money on fuel, and there are indirect costs as well, mainly passengers’ time. To counter delays, many airlines “pad” their schedules, adding a considerable amount of time onto the flight plan, says Dr. Ater. This padding increases the costs of staff and the busy business flyer time — something often more valuable than money.

Some airlines will prefer not to pay the charge and operate during non-congested periods, Dr. Ater says. Consequently, overall congestion would drop. Currently, airlines at most airports pay for runway use depending on the weight of the aircraft, except for a few such as Chicago O’Hare, where airports use pre-determined slots to determine charges and time of operation.

Dr. Ater warns that not all airports can benefit from his plan. “At airports where there is a monopoly or almost a monopoly by a single airline, charging a tariff during peak hours has less meaning,” he says. “In these airports, like those in Atlanta, Charlotte, or Detroit, we already find fewer delays. So why intervene? Individual airlines that dominate an airport do a better job of organizing flights more intelligently and efficiently to reduce the level of delays.”

Previous research on the subject found it hard to provide consistent empirical evidence for congestion pricing. By splitting airport “types” into two categories — those with a monopoly and those that host multiple airlines ― Dr. Ater began to see clear patterns emerge. Congestion pricing is the right approach for airports such as Boston and LAX, he says.

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FAA ATO releases new NextGen explainer video

The FAA’s Air Traffic Organization has put together a 6-minute video illustrating how commercial air traffic is handled today, and how this will change under NextGen.  The video is called “NextGen Gate to Gate,” and you can find it here.

UPDATE: Wired’s “Autopia” blog picked up this story, calling out the video’s cheesy production values but nonetheless expressing support for NextGen generally.

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Former DOT head: “Airlines need to talk in economic terms, not technical ones.”

USA Today has a catch-all profile on the struggle to fund NextGen, with a particular focus on the failure to secure federal stimulus dollars so far. The main critical/analytical voice is James Burnley, who headed DOT in the late eighties.

James Burnley, a Washington attorney who served as the last Transportation secretary in the Reagan administration in 1987-89, says the complexity of NextGen is one of the reasons the new system hasn’t gained funding, despite its obvious benefits.

The acronyms alone can cause the eyes of even members of congressional committees with oversight over the FAA to glaze over, he says. To make their case for spending $20 billion quickly, the airlines need to talk in economic terms, not technical ones.

There’s an economic case to be made. The congressional Joint Economic Committee reported last year that in 2007 air traffic control-related congestion and delays cost the U.S. economy $41 billion. That included $19 billion in extra operating costs on fuel, labor, aircraft maintenance and the lost use of delayed planes. It also included $12 billion in reduced productivity for the passengers traveling and $10 billion in added spending for food and lodging for travelers.

However, Burnley says, the airlines couldn’t make that case quickly and clearly enough to get money for NextGen into the stimulus legislation — despite it being an upgrade to the nation’s infrastructure that could provide long-term economic benefits.

Burnley says that the NextGen cause wasn’t helped when Ray LaHood, Obama’s choice as the secretary of Transportation, hadn’t been confirmed during most of the stimulus bill debate.

Nor had Obama named an administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees air safety and traffic control. Randy Babbitt, a veteran industry consultant and former national head of the Air Line Pilots Association, has since been nominated.

“No one was sure who it was that was going to lead in making the case for NextGen being sped up,” Burnley said.

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