JetBlue and the US FAA have signed a multi-year, multi-phase agreement that will equip 35 of the carrier's Airbus A320s with automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast systems built by ACSS.

In return for government's $4.2 million investment, JetBlue will cover training and maintenance expenses as well as provide route data to the FAA that will be used to prove out the economic benefits of next generation air transportation system (NextGen) upgrades like ADS-B.

Though airlines by law will be required to have such ADS-B "out" equipment installed by 2020, the FAA is attempting to spur early voluntary equipage by showing operational benefits.

The contract is one of several on-going pilot programmes between the FAA and airlines in a variety of geographic regions to demonstrate the value of ADS-B. "Companies that equip reap the benefits of NextGen sooner rather than later," says FAA administrator, Randy Babbitt.

Babbitt notes Southwest Airlines, which decided to voluntarily equip its entire fleet to perform GPS-based arrivals using required navigation performance (RNP), expects to reap $60 million a year in fuel savings across its fleet.

In JetBlue's case, the FAA says having ADS-B "out", which transmits WAAS-enabled GPS position and aircraft identification information to air traffic control facilities via an ITT-built ground network, will allow the airline to fly "two major" routes in the Atlantic Ocean off of the East Coast "even if traditional radar coverage is not available".

The FAA says JetBlue will also be able to use a new route to the Caribbean, and the agreement later could lead to the development of "two new, shorter ADS-B-only routes to the Caribbean from Boston, New York and Washington".

It's unclear when the more-direct Caribbean routes could be available as there is currently no ADS-B ground infrastructure in the region, says FAA eastern service area programme manager for ADS-B, Arthur Sullivan. "We said we would investigate the possibility of opening up this route", he says.

JetBlue chief executive Dave Barger says the programme will make the carrier "the vanguard" of the new technology, which he says will reduce flight times and fuel burn. He says 25% of the carrier's flying takes place in the northeastern US, Caribbean and Latin America. JetBlue has 116 A320s and 44 Embraer E-190s, according to chief operating officer Rob Maruster.

Barger says JetBlue engineers began discussing ADS-B with ACSS more than two years ago. Phase two of the programme, which begins in September, will take advantage of ADS-B "in" capability in the equipment. ADS-B "in" brings into the cockpit the position of other aircraft and other flight information data that can allow airlines to cut in-trail separation, boosting throughput at airports.

"This is just good business, independent of the FAA investment", says Barger of the agreement, adding that he'd be "delighted" to make further investment in equipping the remainder of the fleet. Maruster says the E-190s need only a software upgrade to operate in ADS-B "out" mode.

Barger says "key" results from the trial will come in 2012. "We absolutely believe the bottom line will be evident," he adds.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news