Wireless airport communication systems (WACS) could play a role in air traffic services in the future, but their potential use needs more investigation, suggests a Eurocontrol-commissioned study.

Early last year a consortium led by DERA and including Rockwell Collins, Aerospatiale Matra, German charter airline Condor, SITA and wireless local area network specialist Symbol, was tasked with assessing the interest in and analysing the feasibility of WACS, focusing on air traffic services applications.

WACS, which employs commercial off-the-shelf technology, has been identified as a potential technology for use in Eurocontrol's ATM-2000+ Strategy - a gate-to-gate concept designed to improve European air traffic management (ATM).

Airport communication systems have shortcomings, including a lack of interoperability between users, the limited bandwidth of current data communications systems and radio spectrum congestion problems.

"This technology [WACS] is an enabler to allow the free flow of information. It is to be hoped that this is just part of the puzzle to improve ATM," says Phil Platt, DERA communications programme manager.

About 77 airports already feature 133 wireless installations, with WACS infrastructure operated by 20 airlines and 30 airport operators, according to the study.

Initial applications include cargo and baggage handling, passenger-related applications, aircraft maintenance, ground operations and catering.

Air France, KLM, Lufthansa, Condor, United Airlines, British Airways and Qantas already use WACS for ground support services. The German charter airline Condor is now conducting the most extensive trial of the technology yet, in conjunction with Rockwell Collins.

Platt says two types of air traffic service applications are possible - direct communication with the aircraft and indirect communications through the airport or airline.

Direct controller-pilot datalink communications via WACS may be possible, according to Platt, including departure clearances and datalink operational terminal information service.

The cost to an airport of installing a WACS is around $2,000 for each access point, excluding the antenna, the cost of a site survey and the network management system.

Meanwhile, aircraft costs will total around $100,000, excluding installation. Communication costs are expected to be "substantially lower" than via the airborne communications addressing and reporting system.

Airline benefits will include the reduction of turnaround times, a common information source and savings of c100,000 ($98,500) per aircraft per annum.

Source: Flight International