With LAAS in limbo, FAA buys more ILSs

 - October 11, 2006, 7:43 AM

The FAA is expected to announce a major ILS contract award within the next 90 days, according to agency insiders. As currently written, the contract will call for the purchase and installation of as many as 615 instrument landing systems between 2007 and 2013. The large majority of systems will provide precision approaches at new locations while the balance will replace older equipment. At some runways that already have systems installed, the equipment will be upgraded to higher-category units. The new contract builds on previous FAA awards, which have added more than 300 ILS installations to the nation’s inventory over the last three years.

The contract will cover the purchase of Category I, II and III systems, which will be supplied under the federal government’s indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity process, a relatively new procurement procedure that allows the FAA to specify the system types, quantities and locations as operational requirements demand over the contract period. Insiders expect the initial production batch, to be delivered in 2007, to consist of 15 Category I systems, at locations still to be finalized.

The two bidders for the contract are Thales of France and Alenia Marconi of Italy. These firms have bid through their respective U.S. subsidiaries, the former Wilcox Electric Company of Kansas City and the former Aviation Systems of Overland Park, Kan. The U.S. subsidiaries, each of which has a long history of ILS manufacture for both the FAA and international markets, would build the equipment. For the upcoming contract, both supplied systems late last year for FAA technical and operational evaluation at the Tamiami, Fla. airport.

LPV Approaches

FAA officials emphasize that the new ILS purchase will not affect the agency’s plan to actively promote the nationwide use of GPS WAAS “near Category I” localizer precision with vertical guidance (LPV) approaches, which are expected to bring a much higher level of safety to non-ILS-equipped runways. LPV approaches will gradually eliminate the traditional step- down, “dive and drive” VOR and NDB procedures by providing a constant, ILS glideslope-like descent path.

In addition, because it uses high-accuracy WAAS signals, the LPV’s glideslope and approach centerline obstacle clearance areas are based on ILS criteria and are thus narrower than those used for VOR and NDB nonprecision approaches. In turn, these can safely provide decision altitudes as low as 250 feet, compared with 200 feet for ILS. Currently, more than 70 LPV approach plates have been published, with a target of 150 by year-end, and with a forecast production rate of 300 procedures every year thereafter.

Outlook for LAAS

Where does the FAA’s GPS LAAS precision approach program stand today? At a recent ATC conference, Steve Zaidman, the agency’s vice president of operations services, stated that there was currently no business case for the system. Zaidman’s comment echoed earlier statements by FAA ATO chief operating officer Russell Chew, who reiterated those statements at the conference, explaining that the agency can no longer support projects that are not sound, long-term capital investments or which would burden cash-strapped operators with the purchase of equipment lacking short-term payback.

The FAA has relegated LAAS to R&D status, where it is kept alive by a small annual allowance. According to one FAA official, LAAS suffered from two problems. The first was that even after many years of high-cost development, the system’s manufacturer was unable to meet the FAA’s requirements for Category I signal integrity and the total elimination of the transmission of hazardously misleading information. The price tag to meet those standards remained murky, and the agency knew only that it would be high.

The second problem was that meeting those standards for Category I was merely an interim, albeit necessary and fairly lengthy, step to the even more costly development of Category III LAAS, which operators said they would need before transitioning from ILS. Operators had shown little interest in investing in Category I LAAS avionics, which offered few benefits over the ILS equipment they already carry.