London Gatwick in Thales' sights for MLS installation

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Attention is turning to equipping London Gatwick Airport with microwave landing systems (MLS) for poor-weather operation following certification of MLS for Category IIIb approaches at London Heathrow.

UK Civil Aviation Authority safety regulators are in the process of certifying the Thales-developed ground system at Heathrow after the European Aviation Safety Agency certified the airborne segment on Airbus A320-family aircraft.

British Airways has around four or five aircraft fitted with the appropriate avionics and, speaking to ATI at a briefing today, Thales vice-president and general manager for commercial aircraft solutions Gil Michielin said he expected seven or eight to be equipped by the end of this year.

By 2011 the carrier is intending to have 63 A320-family jets similarly fitted.

Heathrow typically suffers 19-20 days of low-visibility weather during the winter season and each of these days generates about 4.3h of low-visibility conditions. Michielin says this reduces the landing rate typically by 35-50% and he estimates the loss of revenue to carriers at €8-10 million ($11.5-14.5 million) per year.

The installation at Heathrow will provide up to another seven slots per hour for MLS-equipped aircraft in poor weather conditions enabling the landing rate to increase to 29 per hour.

All four runway ends have MLS ground stations. The system uses a 5GHz scanning beam for both the localiser and the glideslope, putting it out of the range of FM radio frequencies which threaten to encroach on current instrument landing systems (ILS). Thales adds that MLS is less sensitive to obstacle reflection.

British Airways is to phase in MLS operations next year. Initially the carrier will perform MLS-assisted Category I approaches and gradually progress through to Category IIIb.

Thales’ managing director for its navigation and airports division, Paul Kahn, says: “The UK regulators are certifying Heathrow. We need about a year’s worth of operations. But Gatwick would be faster because we’d have all the evidence from Heathrow.”

Gatwick is the “next target” for MLS installation, says Thales. But the company says there are several airports – including those at Amsterdam, Paris, Rome and Frankfurtwhich could benefit from the technology.

MLS was originally seen as a successor to ILS but was subsequently shunned in favour of the perceived superiority of satellite-based landing equipment. But satellite-landing systems have yet to achieve comparable levels of integrity and appear unlikely to emerge until beyond 2015.

Thales’ aerospace division senior vice-president Francois Quentin says it is “difficult to rewrite history” but states the approval of MLS presents a “window of opportunity” for the technology particularly given current demands on runway capacity.