The benefits of the Future Air Navigation System have been slow in coming, but now they are tantalisingly close to being realised and more countries are rallying to the cause. Kieran Daly reports on progress so far. No superlative is apparently adequate. It is variously described as 'the most important development in air transport since the jet engine' and 'the greatest challenge facing air transport today'. So why is the Future Air Navigation System (Fans) taking so long to come to fruition?
The pace of implementation is certainly disappointing to many in the industry, but two points should be borne in mind: firstly the progress of Fans is ultimately at the mercy of governments; and secondly, benefits have already accrued if one looks hard enough for them. The first point has been dubbed the 'chicken and egg syndrome' in Fans circles. Put simply, Fans, unlike conventional air traffic management (ATM), works only if both the service provider and the customer invest to create it. That has not always proved easy, but there is good reason to think that the back of the problem is broken.
The second point arises because much of the airline community has forgotten what Fans actually comprises. Although the use of Fans techniques in the en route phase of long-haul operations has become virtually synonymous with Fans itself, that is merely one element of the concept. Fans covers every aspect of communications, navigation, surveillance and air traffic management (CNS/ATM). Regional carriers are likely to be the major beneficiaries in the early days of Fans, as they capitalise on the navigation element, based on the global positioning system (GPS). For long-haul carriers it is the communication and surveillance elements that hold the key to producing the real benefits.
Even in the most challenging case of en route oceanic Fans, the current situation is encouraging and improving. Only the Boeing 747-400 has so far had a Fans-compliant avionics fit developed for it - known as Fans-1 architecture. Boeing says it has orders for more than 200 shipsets from what is known to be at least 18 carriers. It publicly identifies 12: Air India, ANA, Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, Cargolux Airlines, ILFC, JAL, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways and United Airlines.
These limited orders have a disproportionate significance. More than 90 per cent of trans-Pacific movements are performed with 747-400s, and it is in those expanses of previously unmonitored airspace that some of the biggest Fans benefits are attainable.
Figures from Boeing, based on actual in-flight analysis on a B747-400, suggest the average benefit using Fans-1 on a 'best winds' oceanic Pacific route, like Taipei-San Francisco, amounts to $592 in savings per flight. The main benefit derived from Fans on such a route is ensuring an optimum routing. Even bigger benefits will accrue to carriers using Fans between Europe and Asia, where a similar analysis showed saving more than 10 times greater at $6,654 per flight. The saving on this routing is generated from Fans allowing the aircraft to maintain optimum altitude for around 70 per cent of the flight. Currently, optimum altitude is 'rarely' obtained on such routes, says Dave Allen, Boeing's manager CNS/ATM Projects.
Equipment for other aircraft is coming. Airbus will have a product for the A340/330 by the end of 1997, and Boeing is aiming for the same date for the B757/767. Meanwhile, a growing number of avionics vendors is offering ways to bring Fans functionality to the 'classics' - earlier models of B747, DC-10s, L.1011s, and A300/310s.
But the reality is that, despite the money already invested by the most enthusiastic carriers - notably United and Qantas - precious little calculable benefit is being generated over the Pacific. That is because of the slowness of the air traffic services providers in instigating Fans-capable air traffic control. For a long time to come, ATC will be provided by the full spectrum of nations from the major economic powers to the grossly underdeveloped.
Not surprisingly, the pace of implementation has been patchy. Only New Zealand has the two key Fans functions - controller-pilot datalink communications (CPDLC) and automatic dependent surveillance (ADS) (see panel) - operational, while Singapore is expected to bring these on-line shortly. Any aircraft flying through multiple jurisdictions achieves severely limited benefits from Fans if any of them are non-Fans operations. For now, the Pacific remains fragmented.
The two traffic flows most dependent on the development of Fans are those linking Asia-Pacific with both Europe and North America and ATM improvement has been greatly influenced by the activities of the affected carriers. Progress here is one of Iata's success stories. The organisation has worked energetically to educate ATC providers about airlines' needs, and its campaign has been perhaps the key factor in curing the chicken and egg syndrome.
Fans is technically complex but, in broad terms, by the end of this year New Zealand, Singapore, the US Pacific region, India's Calcutta centre, Hong Kong and the Russian Far East (RFE) will have ADS and CPDLC running. Most of the advertised en route Fans benefits will then be available over those nations, but a lack of integration between Fans and the flight data processing system will limit the traffic's manoeuvrability over several countries for some time after going live with the basic Fans functions.
For carriers linking the Far East and North America, two areas are presently of particular interest - North Korea and the RFE. North Korean airspace has been effectively closed to international en route traffic in modern times, resulting in a tortuous detour for both the north-south and east-west traffic flows. Oddly enough, even as North-South Korean relations were slumping to alarming lows this year, Iata was making unexpected progress in helping the North into the wider aviation community. Flag carrier Air Koryo is serious about joining Iata, and Pyongyang appears well on the way to opening up its airspace.
The RFE is perhaps the best example so far of the classic Fans process of rapidly bringing state of the art ATM to regions with no, or archaic, CNS and ATM. The Magadan area control centre in Siberia now has, admittedly basic, versions of CPDLC and ADS in operation, which United is making operational use of on Far East services. United's use of the centre, however, comes about in part because of its close relationship with the key system vendor - US-based Arinc - throughout the development. Despite the technical success achieved, the modernisation of RFE airspace is highly controversial.
The tension has its genesis in a plan drawn up by consultants Booz Allen & Hamilton with US and European Bank of Reconstruction and Development backing. That document envisages a $150 million wide-ranging modernisation, with non-Fans elements to support domestic Russian services, leading to an even wider programme for the rest of Russia. Crucially, the EBRD has agreed to finance it, providing that the contract is put out to international tender.
The full Arinc programme, which Iata publicly supports, would cost a reputed $22.5 million, but is much more limited. EBRD officials fear that Arinc would secure such a strong competitive advantage that a genuine open tender for the work would be impossible; and/or that Arinc's contractual call on the overflight fees would make the wider proposal unattractive to financing sources. The result has been a poisonous dispute between interests on each side.
For carriers operating between Asia-Pacific and Europe, there is a more pressing geographical priority. A huge step forward has been taken this year with India's launch of a Fans implementation programme that will initially see a Fans route bypassing the horrendous Calcutta bottleneck. It is the neatest example yet of one of the major Fans-benefits in the near- to mid-term.
Other nations at strategic navigation points are also showing signs of progress which will gradually straighten out the zigzag, beacon-hopping routes from Europe to southeast Asia. Afghanistan, which has some 50 overflights a day, is seriously tackling the issue and has agreed to plough the overflight revenue back into airspace modernisation. Iran, which has infuriated carriers with punishing navigation fee rises as the various conflicts in Afghanistan pushed the airways further west, is now drifting towards a Fans commitment. Other nations also addressing the issue, according to Iata are: the Maldives, Mauritius, Mongolia, Nepal, Oman, Sri Lanka, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. All of them are learning a vital lesson - that airlines too can choose their routes and will increasingly choose Fans routes over the rest. Overflight fees will be distributed accordingly.
The two flaws in this happy picture are Myanmar, which has opted for a radar-based modernisation rather than a Fans proposal, and China, which is proving painfully difficult to persuade. The result is a non-Fans hurdle on the key Bay of Bengal Fans route generated by the Indian programme. This unwelcome development has dragged Iata's already uneasy relations with Icao over Fans to new depths. Angry Iata officials accuse Icao of recommending the radar scheme to Myanmar. Their mood was not improved when Icao president Assad Kotaite first implicitly criticised pioneering Fans programmes for going it alone, and then announced a vague plan for an Icao Fans 'implementation conference sometime in 1998'. A high-ranking Iata manager commented pointedly on hearing Kotaite's words: 'I think maybe [Icao] should be in a different game.'
The Chinese situation has major implications for services between Europe and Asia, in particular. Direct Fans routes would generate huge savings in time and fuel compared to the penalties imposed by the present inflexible airways. Perhaps the biggest problem is China's reluctance to negotiate additional border crossing points with Russia, despite the significant overflight fees that it would unquestionably earn.
Nevertheless, the Asia-Pacific is well on its way to becoming a Fans environment, and attention is switching elsewhere. Iata's new focus is Latin America. The region has an unenviable safety record, and the approach and landing elements of Fans - making use of GPS to create much safer precision and non-precision approaches - neatly addresses that. Some areas, notably the Caribbean, will also see economic benefits through the use of GPS for more direct routings.
American Eagle's Executive Airlines unit in San Juan, Puerto Rico has achieved one of the great Fans successes with its use of GPS on ATR 42s and ATR 72s in the east Caribbean. The carrier gained a 4 per cent reduction in systemwide flight time as a direct result of using GPS equipment rather than ground aids. It has recently added two more islands - St Vincent and Grenada - to the points that it can reliably connect to American Airlines' operations at San Juan.
On the North Atlantic the position is different again, and use of Fans techniques is likely to be slower in coming for several inter-related reasons. The first reason is that as virtually all traffic follows the same handful of tracks across the ocean, there would be much less demand than on the Pacific for lateral deviations. Secondly, the pressing requirement for increased capacity on those routes is going to be absorbed for some time to come by a phased reduction in vertical separation from 2,000ft to 1,000ft due to begin next year. This is attainable without Fans avionics, which is critical since the airspace is still heavily served by 'classic' aircraft types.
Finally, there is technical concern that the first-generation datalink technique which is fundamental to the Pacific programme would not eventually be economically or operationally adequate in a denser traffic area like the North Atlantic. Experimental work on the much more advanced aeronautical telecommunications network (ATN) is well advanced and may form the basis of North Atlantic Fans operations when, and if, it is implemented.
There is a long way to go. But it must be remembered that Fans represents a once in a lifetime revolution that will sweep away the majority of the world's CNS/ATM infrastructure created to date. Fans is coming, and the first investors will be the earliest beneficiaries.
Satellite-based communications - overwhelmingly datalink rather than voice - are the key to the Fans' three elements of communications, navigation and surveillance. For communications, the satellite introduces a reliable link in areas where either no services exist, or hopelessly unreliable services are used today. That two-way link is known as controller-pilot datalink communications (CPDLC).
Satellite navigation, in practice the US global positioning system (GPS) for now, brings unprecedented accurate guidance without the use of expensive navigation beacons on the ground. The same equipment will even permit poor weather landings at the thousands of airports with little or no navigation assistance.
But much of the earliest benefit of Fans comes courtesy of the use of satellites for surveillance. That replaces enormously expensive radar control and extends the controller's vision into areas where today there is no radar coverage - notably oceanic. Aircraft automatically transmit their positions by datalink at fixed intervals in a process called automatic dependent surveillance (ADS).
Controllers can 'see' aircraft in real-time, allowing separation distances between aircraft to be slashed to the point where each aircraft will require less than a tenth of the protected airspace needed today. Furthermore, with a little more automation, they can make use of 'dynamic re-routing' which lets them change flight-plan while en route to take advantage of beneficial winds and other weather.
Among numerous benefits of all this are: enhanced ATC system capacity; fuel-efficient routings and re-routings; safer and more economical approach procedures; reduced navigation charges; and improved schedule integrity.