Will the aviation world ever be truly seamless? This was the question being asked at last week’s annual EASA/FAA conference, held here in Paris. The goal seems as far away as ever with the U.S. and Europe struggling to fund ambitious new ATM systems. However, it was not missed on panelists that it is the developing world that might lead the way, as they have no legacy systems or personnel issues to deal with.
Patrick Ky, who is executive director of the Sesar Joint Undertaking and will become EASA’s executive director on September 1, chaired a panel discussion titled “Towards a Global & Integrated Aviation System.”
John Hamilton, Boeing v-p and former 737 chief project engineer, said, “I think harmonization is happening, although it’s a bit stop-go on some things.” He referred to the ICAO Block Upgrade plan: “For the first time now all countries could move forward and participate in modernizing the ATM system, allowing more flexible and efficient routes.” He pointed out that the first RNP procedures were implemented around eight years ago in Alaska and now they are widespread in the U.S. and growing in number throughout the world.
“The business case [for modernizing ATC] is very difficult to sell,” said Anne Jany, Airbus head of the airworthiness technical directorate. “[Also] we need to look at the regulatory framework. We need to understand the hard law and the soft law and how they work together. We need to think end-to end, as the aircraft can’t do it by itself.”
John Hickey, FAA deputy associate administrator for aviation safety, warned: “There is not a uniformity of safety levels. If we’re not careful as we move forward with ATM we could further aggravate the differences in safety.” He worries about “divergence rather than harmonization; it was an easier world in the 1990s when we dealt with the harmonization of design standards.”
With ATM modernization, Hickey observed, “Return on investment is a huge discussion going on in the U.S. right now. At the NextGen advisory committee operators said they will not invest in equipment unless they get return on investment.” He also noted that the only aspect of the future ATM system that had been mandated so far was data links in Europe. The U.S. meanwhile has a timetable to implement ADS-B OUT by 2020, its only mandate, with Europe coming on board with ADS-B earlier. “We’re just deciding what to do with ADS-B IN, too,” he added, noting the implications if pilots are expected to self-separate from other aircraft. “But my biggest concern is Datacom, with different timetables and requirements; the Europeans are going to implement standards first and then we’re going to go above the Europeans, which could be untenable for operators.”
Bullish as ever about the advantages of Sesar/NextGen technologies, Patrick Ky said, “We’re still using 1950s technology with VHF comms. The ATN [Aeronautical Telecommunications Network] ICAO standard was adopted in the 1990s and is only just being implemented in Europe this year, so it takes 20 to 30 years to adopt an ICAO standard.” He continued by asking, “Are we moving too fast?” This was prompted by Boeing v-p Hamilton’s comment that, “We almost feel that we are ahead [with technology in aircraft] and should slow down a bit” to let the ground infrastructure catch up. “I can’t tell you the number of operator CEOs who have said [to Boeing] that they send aircraft to the desert having not used some one or two million [worth of] equipment.”
A discussion ensued about “Best-equipped, best-served,” which has been touted by some as a possible effective way to give operators payback for their investment in equipment. “We’re contemplating the controversial policy of best-equipped, best-served,” said the FAA’s Hickey. “We have a [general] policy that policy has to be cost-beneficial [for end-users].”
Sesar’s Ky asked whether safety improvement could be used as a reason to mandate airspace advances. Hickey pointed out, “The flip-side of safety is with more precise flight paths we’re going to [have] more and more aircraft closer together, which could result in a less safe environment. So we have to look out for unintended consequences.” He also said that trying to introduce technology to improve ATC at the moment is proving difficult, with fiscal constraints in the U.S. (sequestration) and strikes in Europe. “We sometimes fall into the ‘comfort zone’ of dealing with just the major airlines,” he added, “but in fact many [business aviation aircraft] actually have better equipment.” So it is struggling airlines that may find it hardest to afford new equipment.
The panel also discussed pilot training and quality. Hickey noted that, “There is growing concern about the potential that the complexity of the airplane has surpassed the capability of the pilot,” and that pilot quality is not as it once was when most were ex-military and when it was a more attractive profession. “So the pilot is now seen as right on the border of minimum standards,” he warned. “There are now incidents where you can’t believe that pilots could behave that way, and if you bring more ATC advances and take the pilot away from doing any kind of work, how do you maintain [their skill set]?”
Jany said that Airbus was spending a lot of time researching human factors and the risk of low situational awareness.
Hickey summarized what needs to be done: “First, we have to be harmonized, but there is great consternation in mind as to how we get there. Second, we need to take a building-block approach; we can’t do it all at once. Third, we need to train the pilots and controllers.”