Bringing Them All Together
Boeing is working on a communications system that will link all direct users of the U.S. air transportation system.

Air Line Pilot, November/December 2002, page 34
By Capt. J. Leslie Robinson, Jr. (US Airways, Ret.)

Imagine an air transportation system in which the intentions and decisions of pilots, dispatchers, and air traffic controllers can be instantly communicated to all other parties; a system in which all involved have instant access to the same portfolio of information to perform their duties; a system in which responses to unusual situations can be made quickly, using up-to-the-minute information that allows responders to completely align the interests of all parties involved.

Anyone who has ever worked on a flight deck knows that today’s air transportation system is nowhere close to this vision. Non-flightdeck personnel today, anywhere in that system, can unwittingly cause frustration for cockpit crews, simply because they may not understand what you do on the flight deck or why you do it.

One of the root causes of much frustration, both on the flight deck and on the ground, is that pilots, controllers, and dispatchers do not have access to the same set of information. Why else would a pilot be directed along a descent plane that is inappropriate for a particular type of aircraft or be asked to change an acceptable flight path to one that violates a federal aviation regulation?

One way to ease frustration on the flight deck and on the ground is for every authorized user of the air traffic system to have instant access to the same information, including weather, aircraft performance data, flight data and voice, ATC restrictions, and security alerts. This access would improve the safety, security, capacity, and efficiency of the air transportation system by making a common set of data instantly available in the cockpit and to airline operations centers (AOCs), controllers, and law enforcement agencies on the ground.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, a major concern among the flying public was the prospect of increasing flight delays and cancellations, which were again approaching record levels. In the post-September 11 world, airline passengers are obviously much more concerned about their safety and security as they take to the skies. The air traffic management system of tomorrow must address each of these concerns.

To combat delays and congestion, the FAA developed the Operational Evolution Plan (OEP), "a foundation for capacity enhancement" to be implemented over the next decade (see "NAS Modernization: An Update," Parts 1 and 2, June/July, August 2001).

In short, the OEP offers an approach to resolving the major causes of flight delays—weather conditions at airports and along flight paths, congestion of the airspace between and around airports, and the arrival and departure rates at U.S. airports.

Nearly 2 years ago, ALPA’s president, Capt. Duane E. Woerth, told the Wings Club of New York, "It is absolutely imperative that we initiate real NAS modernization immediately." One component of that modernization effort must be an instantly accessible, fully secure common information network.

Fortunately, the FAA has also recognized the importance of improving situational awareness and enabling aviation to meet the safety and security challenges it faces. Perhaps the most important of these technologies from the perspective of those on the flight deck is the Common Information Network (CIN), which is one of the cornerstones of the Global Communications, Navigation, and Surveillance System (GCNSS) contract that the FAA awarded to Boeing Air Traffic Management in July 2001.

The CIN uses secure and encrypted communication links between aircraft, satellites, and ground-based users to provide real-time, integrated information about aircraft trajectories, weather, air traffic flow, and other air traffic conditions. The information transmitted through the CIN will provide pilots, air traffic controllers, dispatchers, and law enforcement authorities with a far greater degree of timely situational awareness than they have today. The CIN could also be used to detect and monitor threats and anomalies, reduce air traffic congestion and delays, and safely increase the capacity and efficiency of the national airspace system.

A fully integrated, secure, common information network has important applications in the security arena. For instance, onboard cameras could give those on the flight deck a complete picture of any unusual events in the passenger cabin. These data could also be linked to air traffic controllers and authorities on the ground through secure satellite connections. These data would be integrated with aircraft-intent and performance data as well as air traffic, weather, and terrain data. The CIN would instantly and simultaneously provide the integrated data to controllers, civil and military authorities, and government agencies.

All authorized parties would have instant access to the same up-to-date information, enabling rapid collaborative decision-making in times of crisis, even among geographically dispersed decision makers.

The CIN would also allow instant, networkwide notification of crisis decisions. For example, a security administrator who wanted to rapidly restrict access to airspace around a sports stadium because of a terrorist threat could input the restriction directly into the CIN, which would immediately respond, updating the flight plans of affected aircraft to comply with the security constraint and instantly informing the affected flightdeck crews about the security issue.

Or, if a security administrator wanted to ground all aircraft in the vicinity, the order could immediately be transmitted via the CIN to all affected air traffic management centers and airline operations centers. New flight plans could be issued to aircraft already airborne to help in a safe and orderly response to the crisis.

The CIN could also be used to add another layer of safety to the flying experience by enabling systemwide instant notification of such situations as clear air turbulence.

A pilot who experiences clear air turbulence would report it to the network, which would then notify other pilots in the area.

The system that would enable a secure CIN would include a global hybrid satellite-, aircraft-, and ground-based system. This hybrid system would use narrowband and broadband capabilities for two-way communications between aircraft and ground stations. The satellite capability enables timely data and voice communication anywhere, including in oceanic and mountainous or high-latitude domains and ensures that immediate emergency contact can always be achieved and that continuous automatic dependent surveillance (ADS) is available.

This technology will also help to usher in an era of much more precise, trajectory-based aircraft flow management. Current radar systems do not make use of intended-path data currently residing in the airplane’s flight management system. Therefore, the controller must create a mental picture to anticipate where the airplane will be and plan future actions. Pilots know where their aircraft will be at any given time, but controllers know this information only when, or if, it is communicated directly from the flight deck.

However, a system based on highly accurate satellite-based–navigation, position-update, and intended-path information will give air traffic controllers a more detailed picture of air traffic trends and potential conflicts, allowing the controllers to be much more strategic in managing the flow of aircraft. More-precise tracking will also improve safety by immediately identifying a change in an aircraft’s intended route, altitude, speed, or other indicators.

These data will allow an aircraft’s trajectory to be represented graphically and updated in real time, which should allow for the accurate projection of an aircraft’s future position as much as 40 minutes in advance. In short, controllers will know as much about an aircraft’s position and its intended path as the flight crew does. Improving situational awareness in this way will make potential conflicts much easier to spot and resolve while giving air traffic controllers the information and the time to plan to safely prevent traffic congestion and delays.

In addition, trajectory-based flight management will enable the use of conformance monitoring, which will combine with high-integrity, trajectory-based flight plans to allow for new standards for ensuring adequate separation of aircraft. Conformance monitoring will enhance safety while permitting closer spacing than is possible with current radar-based monitoring and controller-intensive vectoring procedures. This will enhance other efforts to improve separation standards, such as those outlined in the FAA’s recently released advisory circular on required navigation performance (RNP).

Studying the feasibility of the CIN will be a critical part of fulfilling the GCNSS contract, as will a demonstration that will use CIN technology to develop domestic-like surveillance over oceans and seamless transition from high- and low-altitude oceanic domains to a domestic enroute one.

In this demonstration, an automatic dependent surveillance (ADS) system will be aboard a demonstration aircraft and will use a satellite communications network to relay returned-link data that can provide accurate aircraft-position information—aircraft identification, altitude, latitude, longitude, and ground-speed—to a ground-based situational awareness display. This will demonstrate continuous, accurate aircraft-tracking transitioning from an oceanic to a ground-based communication, navigation, and surveillance (CNS) environment. The data from these flights will be integrated into existing models of air traffic to assess procedures for reducing aircraft separation in oceanic, nonradar domains and for increasing the amount of traffic seaboard airport terminal areas can handle.

Boeing Air Traffic Management has worked with ALPA in the modernization effort through what Boeing calls a Working Together Team, which is an extensive collaborative effort, modeled after the successful teaming concept Boeing used as it designed and developed the B-777. The core concept behind a WTT is to gather a wide range of input on the needed capabilities of a new system from the various groups—pilots, dispatchers, and air traffic controllers, among others—who will use that system.

Boeing Air Traffic Management’s Working Together Team is made up of various aviation industry stakeholders from around the world—including airlines, NASA, the FAA, and most importantly, ALPA—to establish the detailed performance requirements of the air traffic management system of the future. This disparate group of stakeholders has not achieved consensus, but it has published an initial set of requirements for a new system and is moving forward to more closely define and prioritize specific needs.

As the process of modernizing the nation’s air system moves forward, ALPA will continue to play a critical role in its development. The Association’s perspective on the new system will help to make it one that meets the needs of all users—from the flight deck to the airline operations center to the controller screen—and is even safer and more efficient than it is today.

Capt. Les Robinson (US Airways, Ret.) is a consultant to the Boeing Company’s Air Traffic Management Division.