Airbus and Boeing are now at odds over ATC initiatives

 - May 7, 2008, 5:10 AM

Traditionally, Boeing and Airbus have used the Paris and Farnborough airshows to announce multimillion-dollar sales contracts, in the hope of one-upping the opposition. But at Farnborough this year–the first big post-September 11 air show–neither company had major announcements to make. As a result, the unveiling of an ATC initiative by Airbus became an important news item, and one that caught industry observers–and Boeing, which announced its futuristic air traffic management plan last year–by surprise.

Airbus said it had teamed with the French company Thales and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. (EADS) to form the Air Traffic Alliance, whose guiding philosophy is that “new technologies are available, but practical implementation is too slow compared to the need.”

The alliance intends to show that capacity can already be increased and delays reduced by moving rapidly ahead with virtually proven technologies such as controller/pilot datalink communications (CPDLC), automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), advanced ATC equipment and satellite landing systems. Future developments would include 4-D trajectory management, and instantaneous traffic, weather and other operational data flows between aircraft, ATC centers and operating companies.

These and other related systems have been under evaluation in the U.S. and Europe for many years, but the alliance’s view was clearly that enough is enough and, starting next year, it plans to equip between 50 and 100 in-service commercial aircraft and upgrade three or four European ATC centers and airports to begin real-world implementation. As one U.S. ATC expert put it, “They’ve simply gotten tired of waiting, so now they’ve decided to pick up the ball and run with it.” While adding, “This is no flash in the pan–these are very serious players.”

And indeed they are. Airbus is now running virtually neck and neck with Boeing in the big airplane league; Thales is a $10.3 billion French company that has captured a large part of the world ATC and navaids market, including the FAA’s ILS and DME ground systems; and EADS is the world’s second-largest aerospace company, which owns 80 percent of Airbus, 100 percent of Eurocopter and 75 percent of the French Astrium space organization.

The alliance program stems from the ThomFans concepts developed 10 years ago by Thales’ predecessor, Thomson-CSF, and is similar in many ways to the FAA’s Operation Evolution Plan (OEP), which intends to implement gradually new, but not revolutionary, technology ground and airborne systems, linked with GPS, in the NAS over the next 10 years.

The important differences are that the Europeans want to accelerate implementation and use both GPS and, in a few years time, their own complementary Galileo system to provide higher levels of satnav performance and reliability. The FAA’s OEP is noncommittal about using Galileo. Also the alliance sees ADS-B as valuable in providing airborne situational awareness and for its air-to-air/air-to-ground datalinks, while the FAA regards ADS-B as having limited value in the NAS.

Boeing’s plan, introduced with considerable fanfare on the same day in June last year as the FAA’s OEP, is a totally different concept, based on an entirely new and sophisticated satellite network–possibly built by Boeing’s recently acquired Hughes satellite division–linked with advanced avionics and ground systems. Targeted for introduction between 2010 and 2020, the system would essentially replace most of the systems developed under the OEP. But a Boeing spokesman at Farnborough was quoted as stating that its cost “would obviously run into the billions of dollars.”