19 May 2006

Plane Wars 2

Picture Airbus: Singapore Airlines Airbus 380

All major airports in Europe are battling to increase their runway throughput to meet the ever-increasing passenger demand. The situation can be improved by use of larger aircraft types such as Boeing 747 and especially a new 550-seat Airbus A380.

Currently air traffic controllers are using distance separation (depends on aircraft weight category, must be minimum 2.5-3 NM over the runway threshold) between consecutive landings that must be increased significantly behind heavier aircraft due to wake vortex. Separating aircraft precisely on final approach without losing landing slots is notoriously difficult task for flights with different final approach speeds because the approaching aircraft have to follow the same final path established typically at least for the last 10-15 NM before landing.

Airport ATC system planners (see also the WakeNet2-Europe site) want to improve airport throughput e.g. by changing a distance-based separation to a time-based separation that would take into account different and gradually decreasing final approach speeds used by aircraft on final approach. This would require automated systems to assist controllers, and those are not currently available although there are some such systems in development phase.

The problem caused by wake vortex was highlighted by Airbus A300 crash on take-off from New York’s Kennedy airport in autumn 2001 soon after 9/11 killing everybody on board. The aircraft suffered major structural damage one minute into the flight and the investigation concluded that turbulance caused by wake vortex was a contributing factor in the accident.

On Thursday this week, Airbus’s new giant jet, A380, landed first time at London Heathrow, the world’s busiest international airport. The UK Civil Aviation Authority, following an International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) recommended practise, has ordered that an 11 NM separation must be maintained behind a landing A380, maximum weight 540 tonnes, this is almost twice as much as separation behind a landing Boeing 747 (max weight 360 tonnes). If this is carried through to line operations of A380, the airlines – and airport operators – fear that the advantage offered by a 550-seater A380 would be lost by missing scarce landing slots.

Head of flight testing at Airbus, Fernando Alonso, has said that the Airbus's own flight tests have shown slightly more severe vortex behind an A380 than a 747, but that would not require almost doubling of landing separation minimum compared to 747. Airbus is trying to convince ICAO that a separation same or very similar to 747 would be safe behind an A380.

According to the London’s The Times –newspaper the president of the Emirates (of Dubai, orders for 49 A380s) Maurice Flanagan has speculated that ICAO’s decision on an excessive separation was influenced by the US, keen to protect Boeing’s share of the jumbo market.

Picture: Changi airport at the time when flights took days to finis and passangers stayed in the Raffles Hotel as part of their flight experience. Airbus A380 will be able to fly directly from London to Sydney, so even a Singapore stop-over will be just a part of nostalgic history. So soon even a quick drink of Singapore sling on the terrace in the Raffles will be impossible

Airbus has so far 159 firm orders for the A380. The first A380 with paying passengers will be operated by Singapore Airlines in December 2006 between Singapore Changi International and Sydney airports.

18 May 2006

Plane wars

Picture: Airbus A350

In October 2004, European Union and USA filed law suits against each other in the World Trade Organisation accusing both that the governments give their domestic aircraft manufacturers illegal subsidies. The case is the largest the WTO has handled and is expected to last several years.

The two giant aircraft builders are battling to dominate the market of commercial airplanes. Boeing has been the historical leader but Airbus has hit back and last year passed its rival in number of aircraft in its order books.

Last year the Bush administration ended a significant tax break that has sustained Boeing’s dominance and the Americans were hoping that that would end the dispute, but that did not happen.

Airbus is now planning to ask more aid from the European governments in order to redesign its troublesome A350 –project, which is falling behind Boeing's 787 Dreamliner. Expected delivery dates for A350 are in 2010, Boeing will start delivering 787s already in 2008. A350 may be delayed further due to major redesign of the cockpit due to customer requests.

Picture: Boeing 787 Dreamliner

This week Ms. Neena Moorjani (spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative's Office) warned the European governments:

Increasing the amount of launch aid already committed to the A350 only makes
the problem worse.

The spokeswoman also said that the US still prefers a negotiated solution, but will litigate the World Trade Organisation case until completed, if necessary.

The war continues.

17 May 2006

Very Light Jet: Disruptive technology?

2006 may well be the year of dawn of a new era for business aviation, which has been anticipated ever since William Lear Jr. rolled out his first LearJet-23 in October 1963. Although successful (but accident-prone in the beginning: 10 of the first 100 produced were destroyed), Lear Jet was clearly meant for very rich people, who would fly from their New York, London, Moscow or Jeddah luxury homes to equally luxurious villas in Florida or French Riviera, before boarding a luxury yacht for a day trip with luxuriously beautiful women, who were plentiful in every respect. In other words, business jets have served a small number of super-rich, a market marginalised by the scarcity of money.

Meanwhile, the general aviation, which in the 1960s and -70s was optimistic, innovative and growing very fast, has gone into slumber from producing 18,000 aircraft in 1978 to the current annual production rate of 3,000 aircraft.

All that is about to change, if we believe the enthusiastic entrepreneurs working on a concept of Very Light Jet (VLJ). People like Vern Raburn, the CEO of Eclipse Aviation and a former IT high-flyer, who has worked previously e.g. with such computer wizards as Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

It can be quite confidently predicted that, overall, air traffic will continue to grow as long as there is fuel to be burned. There have been only two short periods in the history of air traffic, when the growth rate was negative: in 1991 due to the first Gulf war and in 2001-2002 in the aftermath of 9/11 and outbreak of SARS.

Picture: Braniff Orange Giant Boeing 747

Obviously, the growth rate for, say, the period up to 2025 is difficult to determine exactly. Generally speaking, the airline operators themselves dare not see or forecast beyond something like half a dozen years ahead. There is always the fear of economic failure, which is threatening even the most robust looking airlines. Who could have seriously predicted that companies like Braniff, PanAm, TWA, Swissair or even that joke of an airline business, the Belgian national carrier Sabena, would not exist in 2006. One would have thought that somebody could’ve bailed them out before letting them go under. Alitalia may be next.

But under they went. And consequently, it would be foolish to believe the predictions made by the airline industry.

The same is probably not true of the aircraft manufacturing industry. There are really only two serious players there, Boeing and Airbus, both (allegedly) clandestinely subsidised by the respective governments, which will make sure that they – and their jobs – not only exist for the foreseeable future, but will also thrive. And that makes their predictions somewhat more trustworthy.

Boeing Current Market Outlook 2005 predicts firstly that the world economies will grow by 2.6 % during the next 20 years. And secondly that the passenger traffic growth will average 4.8 % for the same period.

Currently there are some 16,800 passenger aircraft flying around the world. In twenty years that number will be something like 35,300, of which 24,700 are new additions or replacements for the ageing fleet (of some 6,000 aircraft). Thus about 60 % of the current fleet will still be flying 20 years from now. Little over half of the new aircraft would be for the American market.

Business aviation in Europe, compared to the USA, is rather limited for reasons such as restrictive allowance for use of airports and even parts of the European airspace. Flying in Europe has always been more government controlled that in the States. Most of the major airlines have been publicly owned and fiercely protected by their owners, the States. That has obviously changed and the airlines – whether publicly or privately owned – are supposed to compete with each other on equal basis and have to survive without generous support by the European taxpayer.

The loss of subsidies has resulted in disappearance of many city-pairs that were traditionally served by the government subsidised airlines making financial losses in flying those routes. The established airlines, including the low-cost carriers like Ryanair, in Europe now serve something like 30,000 city-pairs (3,000 of those only once a week and only 1,000 served daily), three times fewer that the business aviation, which serves some 100,000 city-pairs (albeit most of those only once a week or less). One problem of business aviation has been the lack of viable aircraft types. Business jets are very expensive and propeller-driven aircraft too slow. That is about to change.

Eurocontrol, sponsored by one of the few visionaries of European aviation, Lex Hendriks, the Head of Airspace Flow Managemend and Navigation Business Division in Eurocontol headquarters in Brussels, has just published a report entitled Getting to the Point: Business Aviation in Europe that promises a much brighter future for this sector of aviation business. It is predicted that its growth rate will be much higher than in airline industry, perhaps as high as 7 % a year for the next 10 years. The imminent introduction of VLJs may increase this even further.

Picture: Cessna Citation Mustang

The first of the VLJs to be certified by FAA in the USA will be Eclipse 500, expected to be approved in June or July 2006 and to start deliveries in the States at the end of 2006 or early 2007. The European certificate (by the European Joint Aviation Authority, JAA) is expected by the end of 2006. Although Eclipse 500 will be the first VLJ to be certified, it will not be the only one. Cessna Mustang is hot on the heels of the Eclipse jet, certification still in 2006 and first deliveries at about the same time as its early rival. The Diamond Aircraft Industries are developing their own, even smaller VLJ called D-Jet. The first flight was in April 2006 and certification is expected at the end of 2006 or in 2007. And there are other hopeful manufacturers as well

Clayton M. Christensen coined a term “disruptive technology” to describe a new development that has a major impact on a given market by introducing a product that is often “cheaper, simpler, smaller and more convenient to use”. If successful through consumer acceptance, such technologies have a potential, in time, to bring major changes to industry. VLJ would seem to fit well in that definition. Of course, only the time will tell, if that actually happens.

In the case of VLJs, if they are successful, this disruption may mean that a small portion of passengers now flying with the established airlines shift to service offered by VLJ operators, and that a large number of VLJs operating at big airports and in the common airspace would interfere with operations of airlines that, obviously, will continue to be regarded as the primary users of the common airspace.

The VLJs offer a service that is a cheaper, simpler, smaller and convenient point-to-point form of air travel. New kinds of air service may be established, such as air taxi operations for which seats (up to 4 or 5 passangers) would be sold on availability bases. Such as the service offered by a Florida-based company DayJet™ Corporation, who are a sort of a launch-customer for Eclipse 500 and already have firm orders for some 300 of them for the company’s new "Per-Seat, On-Demand" –jet service. Similar services may also be offered in Europe.

Some VLJ buyers might want to replace their privately-owned existing Cessna jets or twin- or single-engine piston aircraft with a small jet that can be operated by the owner as a single-pilot. At the time of writing this posting, it is expected that the VLJs will be certified for such operations. Currently, 750 orders (backed by non-refundable deposits) for Eclipse 500 (of total of more than 2000 orders) are from owner-pilots, many of them replacing their current piston-engine aircraft with a VLJ.

VLJs are not cheap. Eclipse 500 is now going for 1.4 million US dollars. Even smaller and single-engine Diamond D-Jet will cost 1 million US. On the other hand, their operating cost per air kilometre could be as low as 60 or 70 US cents, costing the paying customer perhaps 3 dollars a kilometre. This would be comparable to or even less than the cost of a full-fare economy airline ticket. Time saved by passengers, by not using major airports and thus avoiding delays on the ground and even in the air in crowded TMAs, would make VLJ flights even more attractive.

The FAA Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) (see Next generation system integration plan, 2004, in pdf-format) estimates that, if 2 % of airline passengers decide to avail themselves with the new service, there would be a need for three times more flights to carry those passengers compared to existing air services. That may have a disruptive effect on the existing Air Traffic Control system, which, in effect, remain basically the same at least until the year 2015. The VLJs are slower than airlines, in cruise 0.64 M compared to airliners' 0.82 or so and they are competing for the same altitudes (up to FL 410). This may cause some problems for ATC. Bo Redeborn, Director of Air Traffic Management Strategies at Eurocontrol has said, cryptically, when speaking of the future of business aviation in Europe: "Growth on these levels presents a number of challenges for air traffic management."

Some estimates have predicted that the number of VLJs in the USA by 2015 may be as high as 8,000 and that in Europe the number would be about 3,500, which is surprising considering that European Union generates 39 % of the world’s GDP (USA’s share is 33 %). Traditionally, USA has always been ahead of Europe in business aviation. USA’s share of the current business jet fleet is 72 % against Europe’s 13 %. Therefore, it would seem that Europe has a huge potential for buying general aviation aircraft in general and – considering European crowded roads and major airports – especially the VLJs.

Their introduction would mean changes to how Europe’s skies are controlled, but that, Dear Reader, is another story.

Picture: Diamond Industries D-Jet

06 May 2006

TCAS revisited

Picture: Boeing B717-200

Due to some cases of misinterpretation of TCAS Resolution Advisories (RA), which have caused near-misses, EUROCONTROL has issued new advice to pilots.

EUROCONTROL gives an example of a TCAS induced near-miss that occurred between an Airbus A319 climbing to FL 260 and a Fokker 100 descending through the same level. Airbus 319 TCAS gave an RA “adjust vertical speed” and the pilot reacted by increasing the climb rate from the original 2500 fpm to 7000 fpm causing a near-miss with no vertical separation and 1.3 NM horizontal separation. Fokker 100 followed the TCAS RA correctly.

EUROCONTROL emphasises that the correct response to an “adjust vertical speed” is always either to reduce the climb or descent rate.

The European civil aviation agencies are on their toes about this issue following the collision between two airlines on the 1st of July 2002 over Überlingen in Germany (between DHL Boeing 757F and a Bashkirian Airlines Tupolev 154), in which 71 passengers and crew were killed. In that collision the misuse of TCAS was a major contributing factor. The analysis of Überlingen accident shows that the collision would have been avoided, if the pilots followed ATC instructions or their TCAS RAs.

EUROCONTROL reiterates that the pilots must always follow TCAS RAs and that the controllers must not interfere with pilots’ reactions to the RAs. The controllers very seldom get to know about RAs since the pilots are often too busy in these cases following the RAs and trying to get visual contact with the other aircraft.