Airlines waiting for a reason to spend millions of dollars to equip their fleets with next-generation (NextGen) communications, navigation and surveillance (CNS) technology may see more convincing arguments from the FAA in the very near future.

Along with the awarding of a contract to establish and operate a domestic data-link system that includes $80 million in financial help for equipage, the agency also is nearing completion of a public-private partnership that may provide more than $1 billion to help cover buying and installing NextGen CNS avionics.

The financial aid, along with increasingly relevant demonstration projects at key airports, is meant to provide a skittish airline industry with evidence that equipage will equal savings, an equation the agency says will not hold true if “critical mass” of retrofitted aircraft is not reached.

“The FAA needs to show some little victories,” said Gerald Dillingham, ­director of physical infrastructure for the Government Accountability Office (GAO), at a NextGen avionics conference last month in Atlantic City. “In the past, the sense has been that airlines are equipping and the FAA is not following through. If we could get to the point where airlines see the benefits, hopefully that will increase the credibility of the program.”

One example is American Airlines’ investment in a controller-pilot-data-link-communications (CPDLC) trial in which the carrier equipped 25 aircraft with technology that allowed for a variety of commands to be sent and received via text. Trials began in 2002 but the FAA ended the program in 2004 due to limited participation and growing costs.

Data-Based ATM

Now, the hard feelings with American Airlines may have been resolved.

The FAA in mid-September selected Harris Corp. to install and operate a data-link communications network, known as “datacomm,” to transform what is largely a voice-controlled air traffic control system today to a data-based air traffic management system for the next decade.

Teamed with Harris under the seven-year, $331 million Data Communications Integrated Services (DCIS) contract is American, along with GE Aviation, Arinc, Thales and others.

Peter Challan, VP of industry affairs for Harris, notes that some of American’s aircraft are already equipped with the necessary avionics from the CPDLC trials and “we’ll equip others” for demonstrations at five initial airports in the 2015 timeframe.

The FAA has not announced which airports will be selected.

The long-term benefit of datacomm will be the evolution to real-time coordination of flight-management system parameters automatically between the ground and the air, paving the way for 4-D trajectory-based operations (TBO).

With 4-D TBO, an aircraft will arrive at a desired waypoint within seconds of a pre-determined time in the flight plan, boosting capacity while decreasing congestion and fuel burn as well as human errors related to voice and data entry. Operators of legacy aircraft will either need new equipment or system upgrades to participate.

FAA says the “tipping point” to optimize user benefits of datacomm is about 1,900 aircraft.

The agency is hoping that airlines, seeing the benefits of DCIS through early demonstrations at the five airports starting in 2015, will want to voluntarily equip, a different tactic than the agency used for automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B)-“out,” the satellite-based surveillance system that will replace much of the legacy radar network after a 2020 equipage mandate comes due. The agency contracted with ITT Exelis in 2007 to deploy and operate the NextGen surveillance system, ADS-B. The system is expected to be fully operational in 2013, though aircraft operators will have until 2020 comply with the avionics mandate.

Demonstrated Merits

Dillingham says a “top challenge” for convincing airlines of the merits of NextGen in the near term is to demonstrate benefits from avionics already installed on an aircraft, including performance-based navigation (PBN) systems. PBN includes GPS approaches that mimic instrument landing system (ILS) Category 1 approaches (200-ft. decision height and 1/4-mi. visibility) and required navigation performance (RNP) procedures. With RNP, the aircraft is certified to maintain a predetermined accuracy in position and altitude, with real-time updates displayed to specially trained pilots via the avionics as the aircraft flies a custom-designed approach that can curve around noise-sensitive areas or obstructive terrain.

The FAA’s “Greener Skies” demonstration at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and nearby Boeing Field is meant to test RNP benefits for broader use. The initial project is one of many NextGen demonstrations under way, completed or envisioned, similar in number to the projects taking place in Europe under the Single European Sky ATM research (Sesar) program.

Locally created with national collaboration, the Greener Skies test—with Alaska Airlines as lead carrier—involves RNP approach procedures that diminish noise and increase the rate of arrivals to Sea-Tac’s closely spaced parallel runways in instrument meteorological conditions.

The Boeing-led trial, when it is completed and operational in 2013, in theory will be rolled out at many other U.S. airports once relevant separation standards are changed.

Per air traffic control rules for the ILS approach, aircraft arriving to the runways on the straight-in ILS approach end up queuing for the final approach 15 nm or more from the airport, but with the PBN approach, one aircraft is brought in on a precise curved path that cuts the final approach distance to about 6 nm, says FAA avionics systems branch manager, Bruce DeCleene.

“It is applicable to all airports with parallel runways,” says DeCleene. “Every major airport in the U.S. has parallel runways.”

Unless equipage rates are high, however, controllers may not have the capacity to offer the most-efficient approaches to the best-equipped few, which comes back to the FAA’s quandary of how to entice airlines to equip.

Loan Guarantees

Michael Dyment, general partner in the NextGen equipage fund, says deferred payments on loans for the needed avionics may be one answer. The fund, in the works for years, became a reality with the February FAA reauthorization, which Dyment says included a provision that cleared the way for the NextGen fund to gain a federal loan guarantee, which he expects to have in hand by year-end.

The fund at present includes $100 million in equity from aerospace industry partners, including ITT Exelis, the FAA’s ADS-B infrastructure prime contractor, and $1 billion in anticipated loans. Dyment expects the entire amount to be spoken for within one year, assuming the loan guarantees are approved by the government. “There are trillions more in funding looking for good projects,” says Dyment.

Under the program—to be operated in partnership with the FAA—airlines will secure operating leases for the avionics via the fund, with the option of deferred payments. The fund would retain the title to the equipment, allowing the “purchase” to be “off the balance sheet” for the airline. As an example, Dyment says the fund is “willing to defer lease payments” for onboard data-link equipment needed for DCIS “until the FAA starts offering the service.”

The retrofit cost per plane? Dyment says the “average” cost for a CNS retrofit is expected to be $370,000, though it varies greatly based on the magnitude of the upgrade.