Boeing’s futuristic air traffic plan goes back to the basics

 - May 19, 2008, 6:39 AM

When Boeing unveiled its air traffic management (ATM) plan last June, it presented a future world of advanced communication, navigation and surveillance technologies that would modernize today’s ATC system, greatly increase capacity and significantly reduce delays. But at Singapore’s Asian Aerospace exhibition in February, Boeing had clearly changed course by embarking on a major analysis effort to learn what the aviation industry really wanted in a future system. There was little mention of the high-tech concepts that had been the focus of Boeing’s earlier announcement.

It seems that Boeing took a step backward to determine the most basic issues, such as what system performance requirements are considered essential by various aviation industry stakeholders, and what measurement criteria–or metrics–should be applied to each to ensure that standards will be maintained. Clearly, Boeing now believes it is essential to establish these baselines before moving forward to a total ATC system redesign.

To accomplish this, Boeing established a “Working Together” team made up of representatives from all segments of the aviation industry to develop requirements under seven separate strategic headings: safety, security, system operational performance, costs, transition, global interoperability and environmental efficiency. Within each of these objectives are a large number of individual issues, all of which were examined in detail by team participants, with many issues drawing the expected different shadings of importance from separate stakeholders.

The team members left open the range of eventual metrics that should apply to most issues, since the report produced by the team in February was limited to the NAS and would only attain final form after similar Boeing-led teams in Europe and other world regions had developed comparable documents over the next two or three years. The eventual aim is to produce an international system performance requirements document against which all future ATM initiatives can be judged.

But why this abrupt change of direction by Boeing from its initial gung-ho approach a year ago to its back-to-square-one analytical approach today? Many observers believe that Boeing was stung by the skeptical reception its initial announcement received last June, on the same day that the FAA announced its Operational Evolution Plan (OEP). The FAA’s presentation was a low-key recitation of its 100+ separate ongoing ATC projects, while Boeing put on an upbeat future concepts show, supported by movie clips, computer graphics and a fast-moving script. To many it was a tortoise and hare scenario.

Both plans were aimed at increasing airspace capacity over a multi-year period, but with a subtle difference. The FAA wanted to increase capacity, reduce delays and move more airplanes through the sky. Boeing wanted to achieve that, too, but stated clearly that its stake in this game was to move more airplanes out of the factory doors.

Boeing’s initial pitch last June was also not helped by few cost estimates and little technical detail, as well as stating, while stressing its full understanding of air traffic control, that it was about to enhance its 80-person group of ATC specialists with the addition of up to 100 engineers from its Space Shuttle and Joint Strike Fighter activities. “Looking back at our initial briefing,” said one Boeing official at Singapore, “we were obviously seen as arrogant.”

Boeing’s new move to first establish the industry’s views on essential basic ATC system requirements before moving into future designs appears to have been well received, as has the company’s revised thinking about the timing of its future airspace concepts. Last June Boeing suggested that its ATM proposals could be blended almost seamlessly into the FAA’s ongoing OEP in the 2005/6 timeframe, and possibly even usurp some FAA plans. At Singapore, company spokesmen stated that its ATM plan would now be a natural follow on to the OEP after 2011. It appears that the tortoise will beat the hare after all.

The Working Together team’s 139-page systems requirements document is available at While extremely detailed, it is well worth reading by operations personnel, since it represents what is probably the best assemblage of expert knowledge on the subject yet to be published.