Winning at technology does not always require developing new products or services from a clean sheet of paper. The air traffic management (ATM) arms of Airbus and Boeing have proven this by creating viable businesses by advising airlines and air navigation service providers on how to take existing products for the ground or the flight deck and repurpose or bundle the technologies for an end-product the operators are willing to buy for cost-saving, safety and environmental reasons. New or ongoing projects for the companies include performance-based navigation solutions, methods to reduce separation for arriving aircraft, real-time wind updates for more efficient operations and parallel runway operations. The concept that more efficient ATM—typically the end product of the work—will help both aircraft makers with sales in the future, leads to products that work across aircraft platforms even as the companies compete for new business. 

Airbus’ ATM subsidiary, ProSky, recently launched a new program in partnership with the European Union to demonstrate better schedule predictability, efficiency and safety for operations at 10 vacation destinations in Europe by implementing performance-based navigation (PBN) technologies that are available but not in widespread use. The project, which will include more than 160 flight trials in visual conditions at 10 airports over a two-year period starting in mid-2015, is meant in part to demonstrate to European airlines and airports the benefits of equipping for PBN. Airbus ProSky has about 200 employees, about 75% of whom are located at the company’s Metron Aviation division in the U.S., with the others primarily in the company’s headquarters in Toulouse, near the parent company.

Under the RNP Implementation Synchronized in Europe (RISE) program, Air France, Novair and TAP Portugal will gain access to new PBN procedures at 10 airports in France, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus, with Airbus and the EU—through the Sesar Joint Undertaking—picking up the tab for the ground portion of the work. Implementing the procedures, which include Required Navigation Performance (RNP) approaches and arrivals, as well as RNP-to-ILS (instrument landing system) transitions, will be the air navigation service providers for the four countries, with Airbus ProSky coordinating the implementation and training the air traffic controllers. 

RNP-to-ILS transitions are an ongoing research area in terms of developing processes to smooth the connection between satellite-based RNP procedures that are based on barometric pressure for altitudes (pressure, hence instrument altitude, varies with temperature) and the ILS, which has a geometric beam that is indifferent to temperature. The goal is to implement a single procedure that handles all aircraft, minimizing work for controllers.

Of particular interest with the RISE program is eliminating ground-based non-precision instrument approaches that terminate in a “circle-to-land” state that requires crews to then establish a landing pattern different from the approach. An RNP arrival, in contrast, uses satellite-based guidance to place the aircraft directly in front of the runway at a lower altitude at the termination of the approach, while reducing track miles, altitude changes and avoiding noise-sensitive areas along th

e way.

A key part of the project is to offer airlines the ability to see the benefits of RNP equipage before paying for the necessary avionics upgrade, which in Airbus aircraft involves activating software already onboard. “It’s a chicken-and-egg story about equipage—ANSPs would not implement PBN because the critical mass airline participation is not met, and vice-versa with airlines not equipping because there are not enough aircraft in system to make it worthwhile,” says Paul-Franck Bijou, Airbus ProSky’s chief executive officer. “It’s a vicious circle that slows the system down.” Bijou says airlines accepting the package deal will pay a per-aircraft fee at the end of the calendar year. During the trials, the company will collect feedback from flight crews and controllers on the flyability, safety, workload, emissions and fuel-consumption reductions. “As soon as we can make it a success and everyone is happy, we can begin to expand elsewhere,” says Bijou, adding that the U.S. “would be a good target” for the program.

Other key projects include the introduction of an instrument landing system (ILS) analysis tool known as the Exact Landing Interference Simulation Environment (Elise), which assesses the impact on the ILS signal transmission caused by structures around the airport, aircraft waiting for takeoff, and those on an approach. Airbus built the 3-D analysis tool in partnership with France’s civil aeronautics academy. Bijou says airports must assess the ILS signal when upgrading an ILS from Category 1 (200 ft. minimums) to Category 2 (100 ft.) and Category 3 (50 ft. or lower), a process many airports are undertaking to provide for more schedule reliability in bad weather. Traditional 2-D methods tend to be overly conservative, he says, which affects airport construction, holding positions for nearby aircraft, and in-trail separation for multiple aircraft on an approach. 

Bijou says in-trail spacing on an approach is dictated first by wake separation constraints and second by the ILS signal-masking effects of the lead aircraft on those behind it on the approach. If wind conditions allow for closer separation, masking can become the primary constraint, leading to reduced separation with the Elise analysis. Bijou says testing has shown that in-trail separation can be reduced by 2 nm for some aircraft pairs compared to the existing constraints for ILS masking. “This is massive,” he says. Airbus ProSky will test an “optimized operation” concept of reduced ILS spacing behind medium-sized aircraft in low visibility conditions in Zurich, followed by tests at London Heathrow and Peking. Heathrow is already using an optimized approach with its microwave landing system, but not for the more common ILS.

Monte Belger, president of Metron, says the FAA is considering many of the concepts that Airbus ProSky is promoting in Europe, but under different names and formats. He says the FAA may not be “as far along as Europe” in the implementation of the projects due to the current high-priority focus on PBN, multiple runway operations, data communications and surface movement optimization.

Boeing’s ATM operation, run by the company’s flight services division, is immersed in similar consultation projects for PBN and advanced ATM both in the U.S. and abroad, including a dynamic tailored arrival project at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport within the next year. At the same time, it promotes subscription services to airlines for efficiency tools under its InFlight Optimization brand, including direct routes and wind updates. “We have research projects that couple-in things Boeing has already transitioned into use,” says Jere “Chip” Meserole, director of Advanced Air Traffic Management for Boeing. “We bring the next level of improvement to it.”

The impending Schiphol trial, in cooperation with Dutch air navigation services provider, LVNL, involves developing a trajectory predictor and automation on the ground that can be sent via data link to an aircraft for a dynamic tailored arrival. The system will consider all the required arrival procedures, up-to-date winds and other traffic constraints to create a path and speed schedule that optimizes the descent path to a merge point for each flight. The information will be sent to the pilot in cruise flight before top-of-descent. A button-push for confirmation will automatically enter the path into the flight management system (FMS).

Another research project, with the Dutch meteorological agency, will investigate the holistic benefit of receiving wind updates from one aircraft for the benefit of those behind it, particularly on a descent. Researchers are considering several methods for obtaining the data, including downlinked wind computations from the aircraft’s FMS, ADS-B or ADS‑C avionics, and how each affects a forecast model that can then be sent up to other aircraft in the form of wind updates to the FMS.

For its subscription products, Boeing says it now has several unnamed U.S. airline customers for its Direct Route service, which helps airlines identify segments of a route where pilots can bypass a waypoint to cut track miles, fuel burn and flight time. Boeing originally licensed the software from NASA’s Ames Research Center and incorporated it into an application. The tool runs continuously in the background, checking potential route changes with real-time traffic data to determine plausible routes. Positive results are then relayed to an airline’s operational control center, which can then uplink the route change request to the pilots through the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS). Pilots then ask air traffic controller for the “direct-to” route change using the normal process—over the VHF radio. “It saves a minute or two at a time,” says Meserole, adding that the company is now talking to Canadian airlines about the product. American Airlines has been trying out a similar routing tool developed by NASA that identifies diversions around weather that save at least 5 min. compared to the clearance route.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines was the launch customer and development partner for Boeing’s wind updates subscription service, a feature that Meserole says “has more impact,” as it allows the aircraft’s FMS to fly an optimal path, particularly in descent. “We send in-flight updates to the wind profile, picking out wind information important to that specific flight as it reaches future points in time,” he says. “It’s a one-button load from the pilot to the FMS.” Meserole adds that any time there’s a wind change, the updates are sent up to the aircraft automatically via ACARS. He confirms that “several” U.S. airlines are now subscribing. Competitor AvTech  has a similar subscription-based wind update service that Southwest Airlines is using for its entire fleet for descents.

Meserole says there is other research underway that will further optimize an FMS with real-time weather data, yielding “ways of meeting time objectives without taking the aircraft out of economy mode.”

Boeing is also proposing to test a low-cost method to increase capacity at airports that host a mix of light, medium and heavy aircraft landing on the same runway. The company has a goal of beginning a trial on Runway 4R/22L at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) this year.

Called “Descent Angle to Displaced Thresholds,” the technology includes creating a second threshold farther down a runway that will allow aircraft the size of a Boeing 737 or an Airbus A320 to follow heavy aircraft like the Boeing 777 or Airbus A330 at a distance as close as 3 nm, rather than the usual 5 nm, an in-trail distance designed to minimize wake-turbulence encounters. 

The extended touchdown point for the lighter aircraft provides a higher glideslope that keeps the aircraft above the wake of the heavy aircraft ahead. Additional margin could be gained from using a steeper glideslope for the approach. “This is a way to make the wake issue on a single runway go away completely,” says Meserole, adding that the process would work in visual as well as instrument flight rules (IFR).

Meserole credits German air navigation service provider DFS, the German aerospace center DLR, as well as Frankfurt Airport Service (Fraport) for completing the original work on the concept in the mid-2000s. At the Frankfurt airport, the team tested a displaced threshold on one of the two parallel runways (25R and 25L) to decrease separation between heavy aircraft on one runway and lighter aircraft on the other. 

The system was meant to allow for independent operations of the two runways, despite a lateral separation of only 1,700 ft. between the two. The airport renumbered 25L to 26L and moved the threshold 4,900 ft. inward, making the glidepath 300 ft. higher compared to the parallel runway, thereby avoiding the path of the vortices. A new lighting and instrument landing system was also installed. Meserole says the test was successful, but was discontinued due to complications that occurred when the tower had to change landing direction due to wind shifts. Frankfurt later built a third parallel runway for single-aisle aircraft to solve its capacity issues. Germany also studied single-runway displaced threshold operations with a controller- and pilot-in-the-loop simulation, showing that the concept would work, says Meserole. “What they didn’t do was investigate all the safety issues,” he notes. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”

One of those safety studies will address the minimum runway length and maximum glideslope needed. Meserole says EWR’s Runway 4R/22L, with 10,000 ft. available, could be “a little marginal,” but that analysis has not yet been carried out. Another safety issue involves setting the glideslope angle for the lighter aircraft. Meserole says the angle would not likely be higher than the 3.5 deg. path the Boeing 737 can already fly.

Newark is an ideal location in one respect—it has a Honeywell-built SmartPath GPS landing system for which multiple glideslopes can be set up to the same runway. United Airlines is the initial user of that system and has more than 100 737s and 787s equipped to use the landing aids. 

Meserole says Boeing has been discussing the project with the FAA since last year. “The next step is to define a statement of work for the study phase,” he says, adding that the goal would be to develop a public-private partnership for the project. 

A version of this article appears in the January 15-February 1, 2015 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.