Has ACARS’ time finally come for cost-conscious regionals?

 - May 6, 2008, 5:46 AM

Largely obscured by the preoccupation with new security directives inspired by September 11, the debate over the FAA’s now binding interpretation of a long-standing pilot duty-time rule appears to have run its course. In fact, traffic declines have rendered the issue moot at major airlines, where pilot furloughs have left many longing for the days when duty times approached the 16-hr limit set by the FAA. Nevertheless, the burden of ensuring that dispatch practices meet the more exacting requirements remains a real concern, after FAA officials last month completed their nationwide sweep of airline computer systems and procedures for

“The systems in place now with most regional airlines do not use acars to keep track of pilots’ schedules,” RAA director of technical affairs Dave Lotterer told AIN. “Someone is going to have to keep track of those times manually. Often it comes down to judgment calls. If you send a crew to an outstation that doesn’t have additional crewmembers, you’re gambling they may get stuck there.”

Lotterer’s reference to acars reflects a technology gap most regional airlines have felt little need to close. Historically, dispatch departments could accept some margin for error, thanks to a long-held interpretation of the Part 121 rule that allowed pilots to exceed their scheduled duty limits if circumstances arose beyond the control of the carrier, such as adverse weather and traffic congestion. On May 31, however, a District of Columbia appeals court upheld the legality of a new interpretation of the duty-time rule that essentially erased any margin for error by strictly enforcing the 16-hr duty-day limit, regardless of circumstances. Most disturbing to the RAA, the rule requires pilots to “look back” after every arrival to find an eight-hour scheduled rest period during the previous 24 hr. Under the new interpretation, the “look-back” provision would apply to unscheduled time as well, meaning dispatchers and crew might have to adjust their duty schedules after each flight.

Fewer Errors, More Speed

Whether or not the new interpretation or subsequent NPRM will generate more demand for acars remains unclear. Chicago Express v-p of operations Scott Hall praised the system for its ability to reduce the chances of human error in translating messages and increasing the speed at which those messages get sent, but he seemed less convinced about any potential for alleviating scheduling conflicts arising from the duty-time issue. “We have ASD systems now that give us a direct feed from ATC off the Internet, and so do most other airlines,” reminded Hall. “We use acars to get accurate times and to see if the airplanes are off the blocks or not, but I’ve never looked at it as a way to deal with the duty-time rule. I don’t know…maybe I should.”

Of course, none of Chicago Express’ flights exceeds an hour-and-a-half in duration; acars’ value as a tool for duty-time compliance would more likely reveal itself in longer flights because of its ability to alert support personnel at destination airports to maintenance needs of en route aircraft. “On longer flights, if you want to have support at a destination airport, acars can allow crews to send onboard maintenance communication,” said Lotterer. “But if you’re talking about a 50-minute flight, you might send a message 20 minutes out and there just isn’t enough time to react to that kind of communication. That’s not to say acars can’t be justified, but I don’t think the duty-time rule on its own will convince regional airlines to invest in it.”

Perhaps another, even more significant benefit of acars lies with its ability to precisely track flight duration, literally to the second, giving airlines definitive proof of a pilots’ actual duty time. “Crews usually estimate their times, when they take off and so forth, and acars verifies it,” said Lotterer. “So if you’re talking about a half-minute violation, you could validate that the crew actually did that.” Along those same lines, at least one regional airline based on the East Coast has realized a payroll cost benefit because acars has removed the temptation to overestimate duty times.

Regardless of any residual benefits the systems may offer related to duty-time compliance, the main challenge for avionics manufacturers centers on convincing regional airlines that the efficiencies they generate will eventually outweigh their high cost. Major airlines, with their larger fleets and more complex scheduling needs, have long relied on acars for reports on departure and destination, location and times, engine monitoring, delays, aircraft position and, in some cases, weather reports and winds-aloft observations. Recognizing the cost benefits of faster aircraft turnarounds and more exacting scheduling capabilities, some regional airlines have more recently adopted the technology as well, but usually at the behest and with the financial backing of their major airline parents.

New System from Collins

Regional airlines employing some version of acars include St. George, Utah-based SkyWest, which uses a version from Honeywell, and Atlantic Coast, which uses a Teledyne system. Others, such as American Eagle, Horizon Air, Pinnacle Airlines, Chicago Express and, most recently, Air Canada Jazz, have opted for Rockwell Collins equipment. In an effort to generate more interest among regional airlines, Rockwell Collins has introduced a new generation of acars-capable datalink equipment designed specifically for the regional sector.

Scheduled for certification by next year’s first quarter, the 3.5-lb Collins CMU-4000 communication management unit combined with the company’s new 3.5-lb VHF-4000 transceiver (scheduled for certification this fall) will provide VDL Mode 2 air/ground datalink communication, including acars messaging, automatic out-off-on-in (OOOI) times, position reporting and airline operational communications. Although the CMU-4000 and Collins’ current CMU-900 both use digital interfaces and conform to future air traffic datalink applications, the new unit weighs less, uses less space and, perhaps most significantly, does not accommodate many of the analog interfaces no longer used on new regional airplanes.

“We’re able to make the system smaller because we don’t have to address all the Arinc requirements for old analog aircraft,” said Rockwell Collins regional airline marketing director Tim Vezina. “By just concentrating on the digital interfaces on current regional aircraft, we’re able to provide a smaller package at a lower cost.”

Of course, the most pernicious threat to the health of any regional airline has historically involved the erosion of its cost advantages, and despite the optimistic outlook this year’s early traffic figures seemed to project, sagging yields and pressure from mainline partners for code-share revenue concessions have placed even more of a premium on cost containment. But even if new regulations don’t lead to a surge in acars demand in the near future, initiatives to reduce future ATC congestion such as the controller/pilot datalink communications (CDPLC) program will likely promote the use of digital datalink systems and, therefore, acars.

“We have seen more interest in datalink in the last year than we’ve ever seen before from the regional community,” said Vezina. “We are talking to a number of potential new customers, and they are carefully evaluating the cost versus the benefit of datalink. I think that certainly the current economic conditions are making this a tougher cost-benefit analysis. But I still think that the interest is going to increase, and some of the analyses will show there is a benefit to making the investment in datalink equipment.”