JetBlue To Equip Airbus Fleet for Space-based ADS-B

 - June 2, 2016, 10:03 AM
JetBlue will provision Airbus A320s for the FAA's 2020 ADS-B Out mandate and other capabilities. (Photo: JetBlue)

JetBlue Airways will equip its Airbus A320/A321 airliners with the capability to signal their position over oceanic spaces when it begins fleetwide cabin interior modifications in August. The carrier has also specified that A321s it has ordered be equipped for data communications between pilots and controllers.

Jeff Martin, JetBlue executive vice president for operations, said the Airbus fleet will be provisioned for automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) Out position reporting to comply with the Federal Aviation Administration’s 2020 equipage mandate, as well as space-based ADS-B, which is not now required. The FAA system is based on a terrestrial network of ground radio stations; space-based ADS-B is hosted on satellites and provides coverage over oceanic and remote spaces outside the coverage of other surveillance.

Speaking on June 1 at the RTCA Global Aviation Symposium in Washington, D.C., Martin mentioned the ongoing search for an Egyptair A320 in the Mediterranean Sea and a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 in the Indian Ocean in arguing the benefit of a space-based system for tracking aircraft. “If you look at what’s going on in the world right now as we’re out searching for two aircraft, space-based ADS-B is important,” he said. “I think a void needs to be filled not only from a U.S. standpoint but worldwide…From a safety-based standpoint, having the capability of knowing where your aircraft are at all times, that’s where we see the benefit of space-based ADS-B.”

JetBlue operates 130 Airbus A320s and 29 longer A321s as well as 60 Embraer 190/195 airliners. In August, the carrier will begin cycling the Airbus fleet through an 18-month “cabin restyling” program to install new seats, interiors and passenger televisions. It will also use that opportunity to install ADS-B Out as well as satellite-based ADS-B capability and satellite communications. Multi-mode navigation receivers will be tuned for improved “GPS fidelity,” Martin said. Thirty-seven JetBlue aircraft are already equipped for ADS-B Out and satcom.

The carrier has decided to invest now to meet the ADS-B mandate of the FAA’s NextGen modernization effort as well as possible future requirements, Martin said. It expects to complete the avionics installations by the first quarter of 2019. “Do you go buy aircraft and reward your shareholders or do you invest in NextGen? We had that tough decision to make; we made it in the last month,” he said.

Following the panel presentation, Martin elaborated on JetBlue’s decision making process. “We have the mandate and the opportunity with the airplanes coming out of service. It only makes sense for us to go ahead and equip the aircraft with the anticipation of that benefit to come,” he told reporters. “I wanted to get ahead on the supply side. I wanted to be sure that our fleet was going to be configured, because I fear if airlines and people wait until 2019 to 2020 there’s going to be a massive backlog. I’ve had this discussion with my peers at other airlines. Many of us are starting early out of concern for supply, and taking the airplane out of service.”

Regarding JetBlue’s plan to enable its Airbus fleet for space-based ADS-B, Martin said: “We’re just equipping the aircraft if that capability should exist in the U.S. That was one of the requirements when we decided to spec the airplane. I said I do not want to be shortsighted, so let’s go ahead and make sure that the ADS-B equipment that we are installing has that capability. I can’t speculate if the FAA will adopt space-based ADS-B, but we want to have our fleet prepared.”

Space-based ADS-B provider Aireon, a joint venture of Iridium Communications and Nav Canada, was an exhibitor at the RTCA conference, and announced that manufacturer Harris Corp. has completed production of all 81 ADS-B payloads that will be hosted on new Iridium Next satellites. An Aireon representative said the company is currently marketing the system to air navigation service providers for tracking purposes. It will eventually offer a fleet management service to airlines.

JetBlue has also specified that A321s it has ordered come equipped for text messaging between pilots and controllers, a capability being developed under the FAA’s Data Comm program. Retrofitting older aircraft for data communications is more complicated, and JetBlue is still analyzing the business case for installing the capability on its Embraer fleet, Martin said.

“The dollar will follow benefit,” he said. “I’ve seen the FAA move so quickly on Data Comm—and then you look at the trials that occurred in Newark. The controllers didn’t want the trial to stop because they enjoyed the capability so much. To me that was the point that I went to the boardroom and said ‘OK it’s now time to invest’ because I believe the benefit is firm.”