Wednesday, August 19, 2015

FedEx hosts airline summit on NextGen

FedEx convened an industry summit Wednesday to help airlines prepare their command and control centers for a technological quantum leap: a switch from radar to satellite-based tracking of commercial flights.

Had the system been in place, authorities would have been alerted that a GermanWings pilot had set his autopilot on collision course with a mountain, and it might not be a mystery what happened to a Malaysia Airlines jet that vanished from radar.

The summit, which drew more than 50 airline officials and vendors from the U.S. and beyond, is a logical extension of FedEx's role as an incubator for the Federal Aviation Administration's overhaul of air traffic control technology, known as NextGen.

The Memphis cargo giant has participated in trials or been an early adopter of changes including text-messaged flight directions, reduced separation between jets on takeoff and landing and more efficient spacing of planes on taxiways.  NextGen is designed to improve safety and efficiency by helping air traffic controllers direct more planes in the same airspace.

FedEx's summit focused on educating control center personnel on the FAA's plan to require aircraft flying 10,000 feet and above to have onboard technology to broadcast data gathered by global positioning satellite (GPS) devices starting Jan. 1, 2020.

Randy Girolamo, FedEx Express senior manager global operations control, said the conference, held in a training room next to the nerve center that directs about 650 FedEx aircraft, was attended by officials from British Airways, Air Canada, Caribbean carriers and domestic carriers Delta, American, United, Southwest, JetBlue, Alaska and others.

The technology, called an Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast system, funnels information such as GPS coordinates, plane speed, altitude and weather into the FAA air traffic control system. The data includes settings on autopilot and other instruments, which would have provided a warning, if not a different outcome, for the GermanWings pilot who killed himself and 149 passengers.

"The information will be available to operational control centers to have better insight into where physically the airplanes are," Girolamo said. "So will air traffic control, which will improve their efficiencies in the air space and safety in the air space."

Ground radar, a mid-20th century technology, reports planes' positions about once a minute, forcing controllers to allow more space around planes that can travel 400 to 500 miles an hour. A GPS-based system reports every 10 seconds or so.

"It's about safety and efficiency, which is good for the airlines, it's good for the passengers and it's good for the cargo carriers," Girolamo said. "If you have a safer and more efficient air space, that's a good news story."

Doug Snow, a FedEx global operations control specialist, said some countries where FedEx flies, including Vietnam, Singapore and Australia, already require the new technology.

FedEx's newest planes, Boeing 777s and Boeing 767s, come equipped with the technology, and the company is addressing upgrade issues for older aircraft.

FedEx Express officials anticipate meeting the 2020 mandate, said senior vice president flight operations Jim Bowman.

"We've been an industry leader in this. We've proposed a lot of technical solutions. Our aircraft are, percentage-wise, better equipped than probably any other passenger or cargo carrier, because we see the safety value and we see the efficiency value, so I do not see any problem with FedEx complying with the rules, and we'll probably get there quicker than most carriers," Bowman said.

Bowman believes 2020 could be a defining moment for NextGen.

"When will that tipping point be where the majority of aircraft or a great number of aircraft have this and you can actually shut down some of the ground-based radar, shut down some of the navigation aids? I think we'll be close to a tipping point in 2020, I really do," Bowman said.

"The FAA is making great progress, the industry has embraced the NextGen concepts, but quite frankly there has to be a business case for an airline to do it, and I think the FAA has realized that," Bowman said. "They're coming around to the notion that there has to be a value provided, in addition to safety, for us to go out and spend a lot of money on these expensive avionics."


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