Boeing FANS chief Ekstrand warns on slow progress

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A year into his job as Boeing's first vice president with specific responsibility for future navigation and air traffic management techniques, Chet Ekstrand paints a depressingly familiar picture of the difficulties that lie ahead.

That view takes in the well-rehearsed list of governmental inaction, ill-directed technologies, behind-schedule programmes, fragmented airspace, inadequate planning data, and inappropriate industry/government working arrangements.

And although he sees the occasional bright spot, the fundamental message of Boeing's vice president for communications, navigation, surveillance and air traffic management (CNS/ATM), is that things have to change if the growth of aviation is not to be severely constrained and continuing safety is to be assured.

Ekstrand, whose portfolio also takes in his long-standing speciality in extended-range twin-engine operations (ETOPS), says: "When we look at traffic growth over the next 20 years, with a forecast near doubling of traffic, it seems to me that we have to find some relatively near-term improvements if we are going to assure even the existing level of safety.

"That is because at some point traffic density is going to have an effect on safety if we don’t deal with it in an effective way.

"Furthermore we cannot wait from an economic point of view. Aviation is essential to the economic health of countries and regions. It is really important that we get on with it. We don’t have ten years to wait and we certainly don't have 20 years to wait."

Interviewed at the recent Asian Aerospace 2000 show in Singapore, Ekstrand said: "From our perspective there are a couple of things that determine our ability to move forward. One is the political challenge to make meaningful change. We are disappointed that to some extent there is nobody in charge.

"From a general perspective there are several issues being addressed by Europe and the USA. While they apparently embrace the same or similar technologies there is no one plan. And we don’t know what that means.

"We think that, regardless of the differences between the USA and Europe, for the most part common solutions can and should be employed."

Ekstrand divides airspace issues into three categories - those relating respectively to capacity, efficiency and safety. "Capacity needs the most attention but efficiency is important and safety is just as important and will become more so," he says. "The capacity problem in the USA is very regional and mostly in the north-east. In other places we have efficiency problems.

"One day only 10% of American Airlines flights reached their destinations. The system broke down and they started re-routing traffic and the system just broke down even though we were nowhere near the theoretical capacity constraint."

Ekstrand worries that technological programmes are being pushed ahead with insufficient attention being paid to the associated operational procedures and a poor understanding even of why today's procedures are as they are.

He explains: "What everybody seems to be doing to a large extent is exploiting technology - for example datalinking for communications, which appears to offer an advantage, or ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast) for surveillance, which also appears to offer some benefits.

"However there is a significant risk that these technologies will do nothing more than replace the methods of the past and not achieve the needed efficiencies or improvements.

"That is not bad because it can still reduce cost and maintenance, but if we don’t capitalise on the opportunity to improve safety and efficiency at the same time we will have forfeited an opportunity.

"For example ADS-B has its greatest value in replacing radar, but we don't know why the separations employed in a radar environment work. We just know it works and it took a long time to do that.

"So when you go to seek improvements we don't have a starting point. We don’t know whether these separations are extremely conservative or whether they are just enough. We could collect data but it is not being done."

The result, he suggests, is a richness of technology and a poor understanding of how it should most usefully be applied.

He says: "ADS-B, for example, gives an opportunity to display other traffic in the cockpit. I don't know what we are going to do with that. One thing we could do is TCAS-like (traffic alert and collision avoidance system) but there are other people who think that, with ADS-B, aircraft can maintain their own separation.

"But we do not have enough data about human factors to know what pilots will do. We don't know whether we will display the same reaction when we look at a blip on a display as when we are looking out of a window.

"We think that in the end what is missing is a procedure that glues all this together."

And in any case, insists Ekstrand, the overall planning structures are poor leaving some programmes behind schedule and others being advanced towards non-optimum goals.

The Boeing executive explains: "We don’t have an integrated plan. And furthermore no-one it seems is achieving their intended goals as fast as they would like to. In Europe it is behind, in the USA it is behind, the FAA is behind and Eurocontrol is behind.

"We remain concerned with the issue of national boundaries within European airspace. It seems that in the USA we are bit better off in those terms. In Europe the system of the future seems to be based on airspace that is much more regionally controlled than in the free-flight concepts of the USA.

"I think it would be a tragedy just to replace the current technologies with the technologies of the future without really understanding the benefits. With today's instrument landing system (ILS) we are constrained by an inflexible approach path, but if we accept that in future then we are imposing a restriction.

"We have airports in the USA that have questionable viability as hubs because they are approaching their limits. And that affects the kind of equipment decisions that you make."

Boeing is also concerned about the funding and implementation mechanisms being used, especially by governments, to move ahead even with those programmes that are working.

Ekstrand says: "There are some funding issues too. It does seem to me that there is going to have to be a dramatically different relationship between industry and government if we are going to do this in future. The governments of the world simply do not have the kind of expertise in order to implement what needs to be implemented.

"We can only implement this by doing it in a highly integrated way with government and industry working together. That is not easy. Company A has this widget to sell and company B has another widget - but on the other hand many of the industries are committed to solving our air traffic management problems."

One glimmer of hope, he says, can be seen on oceanic operations over the Pacific where Boeing and a small group of airlines have managed to make at least limited use of datalinking and satellite navigation to yield operating efficiencies through use of the FANS-1 avionics - one of the very first future air navigation system (FANS) projects.

Ekstrand remarks: "FANS initially on the Pacific has been a rather good initiative. There is an efficiency problem there and, although it is in its infancy, it shows promise.

"We have a number of customers there who have come back to us and said they have reduced their fuel burns on certain routes. They are getting optimum altitudes sooner and getting re-routed when they want to be.

"The pace of change is clearly going to be slower than many people think it is going to be. But one of the things that will control that in the long-term is the equipage on the aircraft. If people equip on the ground then we are ready with some of the aircraft."