The latest on NextGen – Memphis

Nobody likes a traffic jam, including owners of jets loaded with people or packages that fly in or out of Memphis International Airport every 90 or so seconds.

Waiting at the end of the runway or in an airborne holding pattern is bad for business and the environment.

It’s one reason Memphis airport super-users FedEx and Delta jumped on board the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen program to modernize the air traffic control system.

Industry officials say the federal program to create a new air traffic control system is at a crossroads, making delays possible. ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

Industry officials say the federal program to create a new air traffic control system is at a crossroads, making delays possible.

They’ve helped make Memphis a proving ground in early initiatives to implement the Next Generation Air Transportation System, which involves switching to satellite-based technologies from a 75-year-old radar-based system.

The finish line is still 14 years out, but FAA officials say the new system will ultimately make air travel safer and more reliable. It will enable planes to fly more directly from Point A to Point B with less wasted motion, by feeding controllers, flight crews, airlines and airport operators better information on what’s going on in the airspace.

Under NextGen, planes would no longer have to fly indirect routes to stay within range of ground radar stations. Planes would continually broadcast exact global positioning system readings, providing data for cockpit displays showing a plane’s relative position to other planes and those planes’ flight paths.

Although the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority has no direct involvement in NextGen, airport officials consider it vitally important to the future of the world’s second largest cargo airport and, on the passenger side, a Delta hub.

“If you enhance the technology on the ground and in the air, you can certainly increase the capacity of the system,” said airport executive vice president Scott Brockman. “If the system gets a benefit, clearly the airport gets a benefit. It’s an all-for-one type of scenario.”

FedEx spokesman Jim McCluskey said, “We are supportive of NextGen because it’s a harmonized air traffic system. It’s a coordinated blend of equipment, policy and procedures. It does allow more operations to coexist in the same air space, increasing safety and providing the airlines with the most optimal routing. All this leads to savings, if you look at time and fuel, and it helps make the aviation system greener.”

McCluskey added that in FedEx’s view, “One critical thing is that the FAA delivers a system that is useful to the airlines and that is developed in a cost-effective and expeditious way.”

An Associated Press report described NextGen as a program at a crossroads because of tight federal and airline budgets.

The tab for NextGen is estimated at as much as $22 billion for the government and another $20 billion for the airline industry through 2025. The House wants to reduce FAA’s budget authority by $1 billion a year over the next four years, while the Senate has favored higher funding.

FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said Memphis has already sampled a handful of NextGen initiatives. They include an effort to more evenly space jets awaiting departure, called collaborative departure queue management or CDQM; testing of ground-based GPS receivers that more accurately pinpoint locations of approaching aircraft; and implementation of satellite-based navigation for arriving flights that are properly equipped.

The airport will add satellite-based navigation for departing flights by February and introduce an enhanced technology guiding descent of arriving jets by next July, Bergen said.

The latter improvement, known as Optimized Profile Descent, is billed as a big fuel-saver because it allows planes to make a continuous descent at lower engine speeds, rather than descending in stairstep fashion.

The newly commissioned Memphis Tower was designed before NextGen began, Bergen said, but the tower and associated radar facility can handle any new NextGen initiatives.

The 336-foot-tall tower includes the latest airport surface detection equipment, a ground radar system that tracks planes and vehicles on the airfield. The antenna atop the tower provides dramatically better field coverage.

The FAA tried out collaborative departure queue management at Memphis with FedEx and Delta and concluded it had the potential to chop 5,000 hours a year off taxiing times between gates and runways. Rather than manually keeping track of paper strips listing planes awaiting takeoff, controllers shared airfield surveillance data electronically and used computers and software to space departures during peak times.

Bergen said the queue management system was suspended for 90 days because of the FAA’s switchover from old tower to new tower June 20, but it will return in August.

The FAA estimates NextGen will reduce total flight and ground delays by 35 percent and provide $23 billion in benefits through 2018, saving 1.4 billion gallons of aviation fuel and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 14 million tons.

The agency says bigger system capacity is critical if U.S. passenger volume grows as predicted, from an estimated 737 million this year to more than 1 billion a year in the next decade.


Thriving in Aviation without Global Alliances

Courtesy: Brett Snyder*

Over the last decade, more and more airlines have drifted into one of the three global alliances: Star Alliance,oneworld, and SkyTeam. You might think that the alliances have become crucial to airline survival. In fact, though, a few airlines have successfully bucked the alliance trend and instead thrived by working across alliances with multiple partners.

Only a handful of airlines can make this type of strategy work, and it requires a specific type of airline. But before discussing that, it’s helpful to know why airlines join alliances in the first place.

How alliances work

There’s no question that it’s expensive to join an alliance. Alliances have a base level of standards that are required for any airline to join, and there is usually some expensive tech work to connect all the dots. For the airlines that have joined alliances (and stayed there), the costs end up being worth the jump in revenue.

When an airline joins an alliance, the frequent fliers of partner airlines can instantly earn miles when flying on the new member airline. Not only that, but they can earn elite status qualifying miles, and that’s a big deal for building loyalty. The inevitable codeshares that follow help to flow passengers between all the networks in the airline system and that results in a big bump in terms of traffic.

Star Alliance member US Airways (LCC), for example, has said that its European operation wouldn’t be able to be nearly as large as it is without its alliance partners LufthansaSwissAustrian, etc., feeding passengers into the US Airways network.

How some airlines thrive without them

For the flip side, look at Hawaiian Air, for example. Nearly every U.S. airline flies to Hawai’i, but none of them fly between the islands. Would it make sense for Hawaiian to partner with a single alliance in order to increase connections? No. Hawaiian can take traffic from airlines in all the alliances (and non-alliance airlines) and fill its inter-island flights.

Being in an alliance wouldn’t increase traffic. It’s already getting the traffic from all the airlines, so an alliance would only increase costs. Closer cooperation wouldn’t really spark any additional passengers because there is no real competition for those partnerships in the islands right now. So Hawaiian can sit where it is and enjoy its place.

Another airline with this type of arrangement is Alaska Airlines(ALK). In the Pacific Northwest, Alaska has the hearts and minds of nearly every local resident. It’s a very strong brand with a tremendously popular frequent flier program. And because of that, it has a lot of airlines knocking at its door.

In fact, it has close cooperation with archrivals Delta (DAL) andAmerican (AMR). Both airlines use Alaska to extend their reach into the Pacific Northwest and they also use Alaska for Mexico flying. Delta has built international operations in Seattle with the expectation that it can use Alaska to fill those flights. Likewise, American counts on Alaska to help fill flights in LA. Alaska’s ability to feed passengers into major airlines up and down the west coast is tremendous.

So would Alaska benefit from joining an alliance? Not much. It already has reciprocal frequent flier agreements (including elite qualifying miles) with those airlines, and it has one-off partnerships with other airlines that it can help feed in its home base. The airline also partners with Air FranceAir PacificBritish AirwaysCathay PacificIcelandairKLMKoreanLAN, and Qantas. Its reach extends beyond just one alliance.

JetBlue’s international connections

Another airline that has decided to follow this strategy is JetBlue. Sitting on its perch in New York, JetBlue realized that it could partner with all sorts of airlines that fly into JFK in order to help provide connecting options throughout the U.S. It’s most recent partners are Virgin Atlantic and LAN but it also works with Aer Lingus, American, EmiratesLufthansaSouth African, and more are on the way.

South African is a great example of why this works. As a member of the Star Alliance, it could easily send connections via its Star Alliance partners, but there aren’t many connecting options at JFK. Sure, South African can connect people over Washington/Dulles on to United, but having this partner at JFK also helps it fill its New York flights better. It also gives JetBlue loyalists an airline preference when flying to South Africa. That can only help South African.

So why couldn’t JetBlue, Alaska, or Hawaiian join an alliance but then still have these one-off partnerships like South African? They could, but the point is that they don’t need to. As mentioned, joining an alliance is very expensive, and if these airlines can make it work without joining an alliance, then that’s a better way to go. Not many airlines can pull it off, but those with very strong niches in desirable places alongside strong brands can and do make it work.


iFLEX – From Fixed to Flex Routes

Most of the next generation Air Traffic Management (ATM) initiatives like Next Gen and SESAR are set to minimize delays and increase capacity both on the ground and in the airspace. One cornerstone of these projects is trajectory optimization. The gate-to-gate optimization concept where a flight is transported from end to end using state-of-the-art technology and much more direct routes.

The problem with this ideology is that a very large constraint already exists within the airspace. The presence of airways and waypoints not only limits opportunity for optimization, but also results in airspace saturation. Most of the airways are created specifically for a particular city-pair due to high demands, but 10 years later the airlines don’t fly that route anymore and the airways remain. Many such airways and waypoints exist in today’s aeronautical infrastructure that are rarely or never used.

This brings an interesting discussion forward. If there were no airways, would there be better scope for optimization. Yes. But it would be at a higher risk level. Hence, in low density airspace, where there are very few aircrafts flying per day, such a concept can be utilized to its potential. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has launched an initiative called iFLEX, which will enable aircraft to fly a more flexible trajectory from origin to destination. The optimization process begins at the Flight Planning phase, where the dispatcher identifies the optimum combination of airways, waypoints, significant points, VORs, etc taking advantage of the upper winds. Modern flight planning systems are very sophisticated and can calculate the time, fuel consumption, CO2 burn, payload impacts, overflight charges for a particular route on a particular day. No re-optimization is envisioned enroute and the ATC separation standards will remains the same.

Being a part of the iFLEX team at IATA, I must say this is a very compelling concept that could change the very nature of air transportation. Together with support from ICAO, Delta Airlines and Emirates Airlines, the agenda for 2011 includes conducting 3 workshops, demo flights and publication of the guidance material to implement flexible routings.

More information on iFLEX can be found here.