Ian Sheppard/LONDON

British Airways is using an aircraft visual-tracking system which allows it to monitor the position of aircraft and immediately react to unforeseen events which cause flights to be diverted.

Previously a diversion decision by a flightcrew would require "a call to tech-dispatch and manual calculation of best track and best diversionary", says David Slack, BA operations control manager. This took around15min, but the new Flightwatch system developed by Racal Survey and Smith System Engineering in the UK allows a decision to be given in under 1min, says Slack. It also puts flight data a mouse-click away.

Slack believes that the system will quickly pay for itself. When aircraft go unserviceable or crews go out of duty time, it can cost between £5,000 ($8,400) and £100,000, he says.

Each BA aircraft relays its position and fuel-consumption status automatically every 45min from its Airborne Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) to BA's base at London Heathrow Airport. It is then transferred to Flightwatch with data from the System for Worldwide Operational Route Data.

Flight plans and aircraft are displayed graphically on a computer- generated map with air-traffic-control regions and country boundaries. If either type of region becomes out of bounds, affected flights can be quickly identified and re-routed. Procedures to gain new overflight and landing permissions start much earlier than before.

Geoff Want, BA general manager operations control, cites the African ATC problems in December 1996 as a prime example when Flightwatch would have proved invaluable. "It was a hand-cranked exercise to find out where the aircraft were," he says.

When aircraft are out of range of the ground station - about 460km (250nm) for ACARS - data are extrapolated, as is the position between ACARS updates, although BA hopes that real-time status data via satellite communications will become more common. Only its Boeing 777 fleet is now using this system, says Slack, although a small number of Boeing 757s and Boeing 737s are waiting to be equipped.

Smith System Engineering director Richard Armstrong says the plan is to make Flightwatch "active" - so that it will interrogate aircraft and alert operators to problems. Diversion plans would then be assembled routinely "just-in-case". Slack says that interrogation can already be carried out "...if the ACARS box is of a suitable standard". The ultimate plan, he says, is for "as low as a 2min polling time".

Armstrong believes that there are at least six airlines waiting for BA to endorse Flightwatch. BA's Speedwing subsidiary is to market the product. Slack says BA will demonstrate the system to its proposed partner American Airlines "in mid-January".

Source: Flight International