EasyJet and Southwest eye datalinking

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Two of the world’s leading low-cost airlines - easyJet in the UK and Southwest Airlines in the USA - have moved closer to implementing fleetwide datalinking after rejecting the concept for years.

Dallas-based Southwest appears to be firmly committed not only to equipping for datalinking, but to moving directly to the latest VDL-2 (VHF datalink Mode 2) digital service slated to replace the analogue ACARS (airline communication addressing and reporting system) link that is in widespread use outside the low-cost sector.

The airline says it is “not yet ready to talk about this project”, but datalinking sources familiar with the situation say that a team from communications provider Arinc has been working with the carrier for some time on implementation of the system. The carrier’s aircraft will need to be equipped and VDL-2 ground stations provided to cover at least its core operating areas.

In the USA, Southwest would follow a path pioneered in the low-cost sector by JetBlue which has had ACARS, provided by Arinc, as a key part of its paperless airline concept from day one.

Separately, UK-based budget carrier easyJet has indicated strong support for the operational advantages of datalink, and the safety potential of automatic dependent surveillance (ADS) in particular, but says that communications providers - essentially SITA and Arinc - must look at reducing service costs.

EasyJet opted not to equip its aircraft with ACARS but operations information manager Graeme Clark says that the airline - which expects to have 100 aircraft by 2005 - is aware of the potential difficulties posed by an increasing fleet size.

Speaking at the recent ATN2002 datalink conference in London, Clark said: “Operationally we have quite a monster to control here. We can’t do it in time-honoured traditional ways.”

He says that controlling easyJet’s increasing fleet is becoming more of an issue, arguing that “30% of the value” of datalink to an airline lies in knowing where aircraft assets are positioned. Clark says: “Today we can’t tell where our assets are - let along talk to them.”

Although Clark did not specifically mention it, easyJet endured very serious - and highly public - scheduling problems during the summer that led to an avalanche of adverse publicity and passengers having fares refunded,

Clark says the cost of aeronautical communications has so far proved prohibitive, adding: “We could use [datalink technology] - the payback for us would be in airline operational control. We don’t have datalink installed on our aircraft at all. Most of them have provisions for ACARS but we chose not to put it in – we believe that the cost is too high for low-cost airline operation.”

He argues that aeronautical communications companies must look to the example set by telecoms and Internet service providers, which have moved from charging customers according to the amount of data being transmitted and received, to offering flat rates regardless of use.

“Basically the telecom world is showing the way forward for aeronautics,” he says.

While easyJet says that it has no immediate plans to fit datalink systems of any particular sort, Clark says that the emerging air traffic control (ATC) concept of  automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B) across the Swedish developed VDL-4 datalink offers significant potential, not least because of its safety benefits.

“Fundamentally I think that we need ‘electronic visual flight rules’. At the moment we don’t have the means for pilots to participate in safety of flight in a positive way - pilots simply react to instructions given. I think we need to look carefully at calling those pilots into being effective participants in the safe navigation of aircraft through our airspace.”

He says that ADS-B offers the chance for airlines, ATC and airport authorities to integrate their operations around the same communication mechanism, and adds: “We [airlines] basically have the means right now to implement something to improve the operational environment and [enhance] the safe transport of people.

“ADS-B offers the possibility that everyone in this partnership can see everyone else at the same time, with no voice communication. If you think of the number of transactions that go on in aircraft movement today which involve voice - every time the pilot chats on the radio he is distracted in some way from surveillance and management of the flight.

“With a system where everyone can see everyone else, know where they are and know their intent, issues such as [July’s mid-air collision over Germany] would not reasonably occur.

“We need mechanisms to ensure delivery of safety not only to the standards we have now, but also to the standards we need tomorrow. We’re starting to see the technology that makes this possible.”

But Clark criticises what he perceives as delays in making capabilities such as ADS-B available, saying: “The interesting thing about this piece of technology is that Europe has spent ten years and €85 million looking at it, and it’s still trying to decide if it’s a good idea. There has to be leadership here; we’re running out of time.”

SITA director of operations and navigation services Philip Clinch concedes that low-cost airlines do not use ACARS “due to cost” but suggests that their growth and increasing complexity will eventually drive them to adopt datalinking.

He says: “An airline that is running most of its flights from one hub can manage to do most things by paper. And if they have 25 aircraft they can get away with it. But if they have multiple hubs it becomes more complex.

“I think now is the time that they are going to have to automate more. If they are going to be able to handle the success that they are achieving then they are going to have to do things differently. Experience has shown that beyond a certain number of aircraft and number of hubs you need to go to automation.”

Clinch has long-argued, however, that VDL-4 is unlikely to be the accepted medium for ADS-B, arguing that, since avionics for the competing Mode-S link are already on all air transport aircraft for radar and collision avoidance purposes, Mode-S is much more likely to be used.