Situational Awareness

Airlines Can Better Track Their Aircraft While Complying With Regulatory Mandates

Airlines can improve situational awareness of their aircraft, gain operational efficiencies and reduce costs while also complying with current and upcoming government mandates for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B)-equipped aircraft and ground vehicles.

Aircraft are an airline’s most expensive asset. They carry an airline’s most important assets — passengers and/or cargo, as well as crew. Knowing where an aircraft is at any given time (aircraft tracking) is an important airline objective. Knowing more about the environment in which the aircraft is operating (situational awareness) — such as other aircraft in the vicinity and weather patterns in the area — is also key.

When airlines achieve optimal situational awareness, they can make sound decisions that enhance the passenger experience (such as avoiding turbulence), reduce costs (such as choosing the most cost-effective flight plan based on current and forecasted weather, and airspace/airport/runway congestion or closure data) and increase on-time performance (such as monitoring airport surface or ground traffic to optimize gate management and departure/arrival slots).

Airlines understand the need to achieve optimal situational awareness, and they make significant investments to track their aircraft in the air and on the ground, as well as to enhance their situational awareness. They outfit their aircraft with ACARS equipment to be able to track them and subscribe to government-provided data that tracks actual or planned aircraft positions in certain parts of the world. They also subscribe to near-real-time data for weather and airspace/airport conditions.

However, the current methods used for overall situational awareness are limited for various reasons:

  • ACARS-based monitoring systems only allow an airline to see its own ACARS-equipped aircraft — not all aircraft in a certain area, whether on the ground or in the air. While other systems can be used for aircraft tracking, they, too, only allow an airline to see its own aircraft.
  • Government agencies, such as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Australia Air Services (ASA), provide real-time in-flight aircraft position data for all aircraft operating in their airspace. This allows airlines to see their own and other aircraft operating in the airspace, but they are geographically limited to the country providing the data. The Central Flow Management Unit (CFMU) feed from Eurocontrol provides planned aircraft positions, but not actual aircraft positions.
  • Government surface tracking feeds, such as the ASDE-X data feed from the U.S. FAA, is limited to certain airports. Other companies allow airlines to track aircraft at any airport, but there are significant costs associated with deploying hardware at many airports.
  • Several well-known leaders in the aerospace and telecommunications industries, such as Boeing, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and Exelis, are working together to deploy global, space-based, network-leveraging Iridium NEXT satellites. However, this project has not yet been completed.

Due to these constraints, airlines are forced to collect data from various sources and then find ways to consolidate/aggregate and evaluate it, using certain tools, to improve situational awareness.

Real-time Aircraft Tracking

Using the Plane Finder ADS-B network, aircraft can be tracked in real time across large geographic areas (including entire contries and continents) such as Europe.

Furthermore, expanding or enhancing an airline’s situational awareness to include new aircraft, airspace or airports can be quite expensive and/or the necessary data difficult to obtain.

In response to the challenges now facing airlines, Plane Finder and Sabre Airline Solutions® have partnered to create a powerful combination that enables airlines to achieve higher situational awareness, as well as make better decisions to improve operational efficiency and reduce costs. The combined solution:

  • Uses Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), an outbound radio signal broadcast from suitably equipped aircraft and vehicles. The ADS-B broadcast transponder integrates with aircraft avionics and navigation systems to transmit unencrypted data such as aircraft identifier, coordinates, heading and altitude.
  • Is relatively inexpensive to expand compared with other solutions.
  • Solves the problem of data aggregation. High-quality data is combined with appropriate software that enables rapid and intelligent decision making across an airline’s operations environment.

Aircraft tracking data from Plane Finder has been incorporated into Sabre AirCentre™ Flight Explorer and Sabre AirCentre™ Surface Manager.

Flight Explorer and Surface Manager are already equipped with high-quality, diverse weather data, thus bringing together key data sources into a single graphical interface to give airlines optimal situational awareness, as well as a visual alerting tool.

Flight Explorer performs checks on all incoming data to ascertain validity and plausibility of position reports and other data elements. Each incoming data feed has a different level of trust, depending on the source (such as air traffic control, an airline, a technology partner, etc.). If multiple sources of position information are available, the data is cross-checked, and the best data source is used.

Surface Manager adds an additional level of situational awareness because in addition to tracking airborne traffic, it also tracks surface traffic.

ADS-B Tracking On The Ground

Airlines can track aircraft movement as they taxi on the ground using ADS-B, as displaying at London’s Heathrow Airport.

The safety, management and environmental advantages gained by tracking aircraft using ADS-B have long been understood. As a result, authorities across the globe have mandated for ADS-B technology to be deployed in the coming years, including:

  • United States — Effective Jan. 1, 2020, any aircraft operating in airspace where a Mode C transponder is required today will also be required to carry an ADS-B Out transmitter.
  • Europe — Aircraft with a weight above 5,700 kg or a maximum cruise speed exceeding 250 knots will be mandated in two phases. Aircraft manufactured after Jan. 8, 2015, will be required to have ADS-B Out installed and older aircraft must be retrofitted by Dec. 7, 2017, to operate IFR in E.U. airspace.
  • Australia — Since 2013, a mandate has been in place for all aircraft operating at or above FL290. Future mandates, according to Aircraft Electronics Association, include:
    • 2014 — Instrument flight rules (IFR) forward fit: Any aircraft that is first registered on or after Feb. 6, 2014, and is operated under the IFR must carry serviceable ADS-B transmitting equipment.
    • 2016 — IFR for Western Australia: On and after Feb. 4, 2016, any aircraft that is operated under the IFR in airspace that is Class A, B, C or E and within the arc of a circle that starts 500 nautical miles true north from Perth aerodrome and finishes 500 nautical miles true east from Perth Airport must carry serviceable ADS-B transmitting equipment.
    • 2017 — All IFR aircraft: On and after Feb. 2, 2017, any aircraft that is first registered before Feb. 6, 2014, and is operated under the IFR must carry serviceable ADS-B transmitting equipment.

ADS-B is a core component of air traffic management programs such as NextGen and SESAR.

Airlines are already making sizable investments in ADS-B technology via the equipment cost added to each new aircraft or by retrofitting existing fleets.

ADS-B will ultimately be implemented as both an outbound (ADS-B Out) and inbound (ADS-B In) service for both aircraft and airport ground vehicles. ADS-B Out is expected to bring significant benefits in situational awareness due to improved accuracy and data-gathering capabilities in comparison with the aging radar-based systems currently used.

ADS-B In is a logical progression from an outbound service (ADS-B Out) that will ultimately deliver visualizations of surrounding traffic, terrain, weather and flight information to the cockpit. While ADS-B In is extremely important, it is in the beginning stages of development and is not yet encompassed by the global ADS-B Out mandates.

Plane Finder has a global ADS-B receiver network that includes well in excess of 1,000 high-quality receivers, and that number continues to grow. As mandates approach, this network is tracking an ever-increasing number of ADS-B-equipped aircraft.

A Plane Finder ADS-B receiver system consists of:

  • A best-in-class ADS-B receiver made to Plane Finder specifications, including GPS/MLAT,
  • A custom-made 1090MHz antenna with high-quality coax cable and fittings,
  • A low-power decoder that connects the receiver to the Plane Finder servers via the Internet.

All that is required is Internet access, a single power supply and suitable locations to mount one or more antennas.

ADS-B Position Reports Airlines

Airlines are able to monitor aircraft using ADS-B position reports as they navigate around convective weather near the equator.

Plane Finder and Sabre Airline Solutions can work with airlines to deploy ADS-B receiver networks in response to the operational and planning needs of airlines, particularly at airports.

The core requirements for an ADS-B gate-to-gate tracking solution are:

  • Aircraft and/or ground vehicles must be equipped with ADS-B transponders (Mode S for greatest accuracy with modes A and C supported by multilateration, or MLAT).
  • Routes/high altitude aircraft must have one or more ADS-B data receivers within range of the transponder — up to 200 miles depending on antenna position, terrain and aircraft altitude.
  • Airports/ground traffic must have one or more ADS-B data receivers in close proximity — typically within or overlooking the airport.

As stated previously, one advantage of ADS-B is that it is relatively simple to gather ADS-B data in comparison to current radar systems. The Plane Finder data network, for example, began in 2009 as a crowd-sourced service (individuals with ADS-B receivers who provide data) before evolving into a combined crowd-source and professional network that now includes sophisticated custom-made equipment, including feed redundancy in many key locations.

For the airline industry, this means that an airport can be quickly “lit up” (or airport surface tracking enabled) for ADS-B data without waiting for government action. This data can quickly enhance the capability of Surface Manager at that location. Similarly, routes can be quickly covered within Flight Explorer by the deployment of strategically placed ADS-B receivers. Plane Finder and Sabre Airline Solutions can work with airlines to deploy ADS-B receivers to meet operational demands.

In short, airlines need real-time situational awareness data to make sound operational decisions. Outdated or delayed data makes predicting, planning and execution difficult. Receiving timely position reports from aircraft while en route or on the ground helps paint a current picture for airline decision makers.

In addition, aircraft, crew and gate utilization can all be improved by better situational awareness through current data. Incorporating ADS-B data into a visualization tool along with other relevant data sources, such as weather, supports improved operational efficiency in many ways, including:

  • Fuel consumption can be reduced by metering departures at congested airports or optimizing flight paths around hazardous weather.
  • Disruptions, such as diversions, can be managed better (or avoided completely) by understanding the location of aircraft in relation to other traffic.
  • Deicing operations can be streamlined by reducing the deicing wait time.
  • Taxi times can be reduced by monitoring the departure queue.

Ultimately, airlines utilizing the ADS-B system not only reduce costs, but provide their customers with a better overall travel experience, as well.

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