- Remote towers going mainstream in Europe
- Handicapping the eVTOL race
- 2022: banner year for U.S. airport P3 projects
- Next-generation SSTs: progress and challenges
- EU airport slot system under fire
- Langhorne Bond, R.I.P.
- News Notes
- Quotable Quotes
In preparing for my RTCA webinar earlier this month, I did some catch-up research on the growth of remote towers. Much of my research had already been done by Dave Hughes, former Aviation Week reporter, with recent freelance articles in Air Traffic Management, the Journal of Air Traffic Control, and elsewhere. The latest trends are:
- Multi-airport remote tower centers (RTCs)
- Replacement towers for medium and large airports
- Three global remote/digital technology firms, getting most of the RT business.
Multi-airport remote tower centers have been pioneered in Scandinavia, where there are quite a few small airports in rural areas. Swedish air navigation service provider (ANSP) LFV, working with Saab, opened the first remote tower center in Sundsvall in 2011, and so far it controls traffic at four Swedish airports. LFV’s second RTC is under development at Stockholm Arlanda Airport; it’s being designed to handle up to 24 airports. Norway has followed Sweden’s lead, with its first RTC operational at Bodo and so far managing traffic at three airports. Avinor AS, the company that operates most of the civil airports in Norway, plans to manage air traffic at up to 15 airports from there. More recently, the air navigation service providers of Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain have all followed suit, each developing remote tower centers to control multiple smaller airports.
But the remote/digital tower is not just for small airports. German ANSP DFS, working with Frequentis, is under way on a feasibility study of replacing the aging tower at Munich International (Germany’s second-largest airport) with a digital facility at that airport. As I reported here previously, such a transition took place last year in the United Kingdom, when London City Airport replaced its physical tower with a remote tower facility located within NATS’s Swanwick control center about 100 miles from London. And in Hungary, Searidge Technologies implemented an RTC at Budapest International Airport as a backup. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, HungaroControl used the physical tower during the night shift and the remote tower during the day shift, to keep the two teams of controllers physically separated. Moreover, London Heathrow and NATS are studying the feasibility of not building a second physical tower to manage the airport’s planned third runway (which will not be visible from the existing tower) but instead implementing a remote/digital tower.
For an ANSP looking to get started with remote/digital towers, the good news is that there are at least three internationally-experienced firms that have implemented remote/digital towers which are now certified and in operation in most of the countries noted above. Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions has the longest track record and has moved up in project size as the key player in the new London City Airport remote tower. DFS Frequentis is a joint venture between the German ANSP and an international aviation technology company. Searidge Technologies is owned 50/50 by two ANSPs, NATS and Nav Canada. Also in this field is Indra Navia, with a growing track record in Norway.
Something else you should know is that remote/digital towers not only cost a lot less to implement. They are also delivering superior performance compared with eyeballs looking out of conventional tower windows. To begin with, a remote tower installation can install cameras all over the airfield, meaning no relevant runway or taxiway is ever out of view. Second, in low-visibility conditions, infrared cameras can still see and track aircraft. Some airports (like Heathro, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and San Francisco International) experience periodic episodes of “tower in cloud,” where the tower windows are above fog or low-lying clouds. A remote/digital tower can still see all the traffic so that operations can continue just about like normal. High-definition cameras can magnify distant aircraft up to 30 times, which no human eyes can do.
One of the people Dave Hughes interviewed pointed out that many air regulations regarding control of air traffic in landing, taxiing, and take-off modes are based on what the human eye can see, not what cameras and digital technology can see and do. It’s no wonder that several of those he interviewed, such as Alexander Koch of DFS said, “It’s a paradigm shift for an ANSP. I do not think we will see any new (traditional) towers in the future. Remote tower technology will be the future.”
For the sake of air safety and wise use of aviation excise tax dollars in the United States, I hope the Fedearl Aviation Administration gets the message soon.
As Graham Warwick pointed out recently in Aviation Week’s detailed review of startup electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) companies, while 2021’s focus was on eVTOL startups’ raising money, their emphasis this year must turn to obtaining government certification. For most would-be eVTOL developers, three types of certification from the relevant air safety regulator (FAA here, EASA for most of Europe) are required: type certification (the design is safe/airworthy), production certification (they can produce it to spec), and airline operating certification—if they plan to operate rather than just build and sell the aircraft.
Warwick’s Aviation Week article includes a summary table, rank-ordering his estimate of the top 13 eVTOL developers. Rather than going through all of them, I will discuss only the top six, four of which were in his top six last year. Most of the six plan small air vehicles (typically four occupants) with relatively short-range, aiming for urban air-taxi service. The only one focused on inter-city routes (with a seven-passenger initial aircraft) is Lilium. Four of the six plan to both build and operate their vehicle(s), which strikes me as a riskier approach than just building them to sell to operators with experience in marketing and operations.
Ranking first, (and up from ranking second last year) is Joby Aviation, which appears to be first in line for FAA certification, probably a year or two ahead of most of the other eVTOL startups. And as former FAA Chief Counsel and Deputy Administrator Sandy Murdock pointed out in JDA Journal (Jan. 25), Joby’s staff and management include people with certification experience, and its board recently added former FAA acting administrator Dan Elwell and former controllers’ union president Paul Rinaldi. Joby is also ranked first on the Advanced Air Mobility Reality List compiled and updated annually by Sergio Cecutta of SMG Consulting.
Ranked second by Aviation Week is Beta Technologies, one of the few that is focusing on producing eVTOLs to sell to operators. It is also emphasizing cargo rather than passenger transport, with investments made by both Amazon and UPS. Cecutta thinks cargo will be half the market for eVTOLs by 2030, and he also ranks Beta as number two.
Two German startups are in third and fourth place: Volocopter and Lilium, respectively. Both plan to operate as well as build eVTOLs, so they will need all three kinds of certification. Lilium is the only one in the top six focusing on regional air mobility, with intercity networks so far planned for Florida, Germany, and the UK.
Ranked fifth and sixth are Archer and Vertical, respectively. Archer, based in California like Joby, is on a fast pace to catch up with Joby, writes Warwick. At $858 million, it has raised the second-largest amount of capital (compared with Joby’s $1.2 billion). UK-based Vertical is the only one besides Beta that plans to build but not operate eVTOLs. It has supplier partners in Honeywell, Microsoft, and Roll-Royce, as well as intended customers American Airlines and aircraft lessor Avolon.
I’m not qualified to give investment advice, but in terms of what I’ve read about business plans and investors in these (and many other) eVTOL startups, Joby and Lilium stand out—assuming their different technical approaches to eVTOL design pan out. Joby impresses me with a very experienced team and board, while Lilium may be wiser than most in focusing on regional rather than urban air mobility.
Just one caution flag to throw down on the field. The past two years of near-zero interest rates have likely made startup business projections look a lot rosier than would be the case with normal interest rates, which are now starting to reappear worldwide. It’s not too hard to guess that many startups (of all kinds) financed in this unusual economic period will go bust rather than realizing their investors’ hopes.
While no serious proposals for a long-term public-private partnership lease of a large or medium hub airport have surfaced since the termination of such an effort in St. Louis in December 2019, P3 design-build-finance-operate-maintain projects are proliferating. Besides several modest-size projects reported in this month’s News Notes section below, $14.6 billion of such projects are due to reach financial close this year for new terminals at Kennedy International Airport in New York.
The largest of these is New Terminal One at an estimated cost of $9.2 billion. The P3 consortium leading this effort consists of Carlyle Group and its CAG Holdings entity, JLC Infrastructure, Ullico, and Munich Airport International, which will operate the new terminal. It will replace existing Terminals 1, 2, and 3 with a new 23-gate terminal. There will be a new arrivals and departure hall and other new facilities. Financial close and the start of construction are expected to take place in the first half of this year.
The next-largest JFK project is the $3.9 billion Terminal 6 project, with JetBlue as the anchor tenant. The P3 entity called JFK Millennium Partners, consists of JetBlue Airways, Vantage Airport Group, and American Triple I. The new terminal will occupy the site of the former Terminals 6 and 7. Financing is reported to be 20% equity/80% debt, according to Inframation News, and financial close is expected this spring.
The last of the three is the $1.5 billion Terminal 4 renovation and expansion. The private partners of the P3 (in all three projects the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey is the public partner) are Delta Air Lines and JFK International Air Terminal, the developer/operator of the original T4 P3 project two decades ago. The project will add 10 gates and an additional 150,000 sq. ft.
With the completion of the $3.8 billion public-private partnership for the replacement of the LaGuardia Central Terminal and the $480 million P3 for Newark’s new consolidated rental car center under construction, the Port Authority has now taken part in major P3 projects at all three of its major New York/New Jersey airports.
Boom Supersonic seems to have pulled ahead of its U.S. competitors with its announcement last month of a deal with Piedmont Triad International Airport (near Greensboro, NC) to build a 400,000 square foot structure in which to build its Mach 1.7 Overture airliner. The 65-acre site has room for expansion, has access to two coastal North Carolina ports, and is within a relatively short flying time of the Atlantic Ocean, where supersonic test flights can be carried out.
Boom’s subscale demonstrator, the XB-1, began engine tests last month; its three engines are afterburning GE J85-15s. This will be followed by taxi tests at Boom’s headquarters location, Centennial Airport in Colorado. After that, flight tests are planned from the Mojave Airport in California. The full-size prototype Overture is planned for construction at the new North Carolina Overture Superfactory in 2024, with rollout in 2025 and flight tests in 2026. Assuming FAA certification under to-be-defined 21st-century SST regulations, Boom hopes Overtures will enter airline service by 2029. Boom has announced 15 orders for Overtures from United Airlines and claims a backlog worth $14 million.
Besides FAA certification, next-generation supersonic transport (SST) developers must also contend with environmental opposition. A group called the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) is opposing any return to supersonic airliners on grounds that they will have a much larger carbon footprint than today’s subsonic airliners. Last month, ICCT released a report, citing numbers from a study conducted by the MIT Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment, which used the GEOS-Chem global chemistry transport model to derive the radiative forcing impact of supersonic airliners. It claimed that the two SST models it investigated, one of which is similar to Boom’s Overture (75 seats, Mach 1.70), would burn seven-to-nine times more fuel per seat-kilometer flown than baseline subsonic aircraft, though in a hypothetical case in which the SSTs use “e-kerosene” of about the same cost as today’s Jet A kerosene, the e-kerosene would produce 90% less CO2 emissions than Jet A. But the report also claimed that due to the higher altitudes and (presumably) contrails from new SSTs, their operations would greatly increase commercial aviation’s radiative forcing.
As anyone who has built models knows full well, the results depend critically on the assumptions made. Jon Sindreu, reporting in The Wall Street Journal, contrasts the study’s claim of seven-to-nine times more fuel per seat-km from an SST similar to Overture with Boom’s own assertion that Overture will at most use only twice as much fuel. And ICCT also assumes that sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) will cost twice as much as Jet A by 2030, which ignores potential economies of scale as SAF gets put into much larger production volumes.
We will learn more once Boom actually selects the engines for Overture and is able to do real flight tests using various fuels.
A recent controversy over “ghost flights” in Europe is bringing new attention to the arbitrariness and unfairness of the current system under which bureaucrats protect incumbent airlines’ access to high-demand airports while leaving the crumbs for new entrants.
In normal times, airlines that hold slots to land and take off at a particular airport must make use of those slots at least 80% of the time, or they forfeit the less-used slots to be reassigned to other airlines. With air travel having fallen dramatically since March 2020, the European Union temporarily changed the use-it-or-lose-it rule to just 50%, meaning a lot of capacity was being hogged, unused by incumbents while low-cost carriers like EasyJet, Ryanair, and Wizz Air were mostly denied access. Now that air travel has recovered somewhat, EU policy for the upcoming summer season has upped the threshold to 64% instead of restoring the normal 80% threshold.
But this time there has been pushback from the media and some of the public. In December, Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr made public reference to 18,000 unnecessary flights in the winter schedule. Popular media characterized this as “ghost flights” that were wasting fuel and needlessly increasing aviation’s carbon footprint—which is basically true. Spohr hoped his comments would lead to a return to the 50% standard, so it could avoid empty or very lightly-loaded flights flown to preserve its slots. What his comment seems to have done instead is to motivate Airports Council International (ACI) to start calling for a serious re-examination of the long-standing slot system once the pandemic is over (see Quotable Quotes, below)
There are isolated cases at a few airports of low-cost carriers picking up new slots in recent months, due to unusual circumstances. Wizz Air negotiated a deal with bankrupt Norwegian Air Shuttle to acquire 15 daily slot pairs at London Gatwick (LGW). This will enable Wizz Air to base five A321 neo aircraft at LGW rather than the current one, significantly expanding service to various European cities. Another example is Milan’s Linate Airport. Bankrupt Alitalia could not use most of its 207 weekly slots at Linate, so many of these slots were able to be reassigned to low-cost carriers Blue Air, Volotea, and Wizz Air.
It should not take bankruptcies to enable low-cost carriers to gain access to airports. As I and some economists have long urged, runway pricing—of both landings and takeoffs—would allow market forces (rather than bureaucratic selection) to determine which airlines serve which airports how frequently. The rethinking now being called for by Airports Council International is long overdue and very welcome.
The aviation world lost a giant, and I lost a good friend, when Langhorne Bond passed away on Jan. 29 at age 84.
Perhaps best-known as FAA administrator during the Carter administration, Langhorne championed major safety improvements, such as the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) now standard on all airliners and business jets and the Ground Proximity Warning System. He also grounded the DC-10 fleet temporarily, after a fatal crash whose suspected cause was a design defect. As my friend and former Department of Transportation (DOT) official Jeff Shane pointed out in a privately circulated appreciation, Langhorne’s official portrait in FAA headquarters shows him with his coat open, revealing both a belt and suspenders, an indication of his dedication to air safety. Langhorne served in a number of key positions in transportation, including as the state DOT secretary in Illinois and as the newly created U.S. DOT’s first chief of staff. In 1996 he was one of the first high-profile advocates of the need for a backup for the GPS system, which we still lack.
I was introduced to Langhorne in 2001 by his cousin, Jim Haynes, a fan of my work on air traffic control reform, We hit it off, and Langhorne helped assemble a group of nine former FAA officials who signed a statement in support of separating the air traffic control system from safety regulator FAA and reconstituting it as a separate entity. He and I co-authored an article for the New Democrat Blueprint Magazine on this subject in 2001 and another on separating the Air Traffic Organization from FAA in The Journal of Air Traffic Control in 2010. In 2011, when the Business Roundtable asked me to assemble an expert team to develop a business plan for an air traffic control corporation, among those I recruited were Langhorne Bond and Jeff Shane. Our proposal won the support of Airlines for America and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Along with a study from the Eno Center for Transportation, it became the basis for the ATC corporatization bills drafted under House T&I Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster, approved by partisan majority votes in 2016 and 2018, but which went no further.
I have fond memories of meeting with Langhorne for meals at the Cosmos Club and at annual ATCA/CANSO dinners at the Metropolitan Club, for many years chaired by Langhorne. The last time I saw and talked with him was at one of those dinners, I believe in 2018, where I finally got to meet his wife Queta. He was a bit shaky then, but I had no idea it was the last time I’d see him. We continued to keep in touch via Christmas letters.
U.S. aviation benefitted greatly from Langhorne’s efforts, in and out of government. We have lost an aviation giant, and I have lost a dear friend.
Sydney Airport $17 Billion Buyout Approved by Shareholders
On Feb. 3, shareholders of privatized Sydney Airport (Australia’s largest) approved by 96% a $16.85 billion offer for the airport company. The buyer is a consortium including IFM Investors, three Australian public pension funds, and New York-based Global Infrastructure Partners. The buyout still requires Australian regulatory approval.
Hyundai Investment Boosts Urban-Air Port Prospects
British startup Urban-Air Port Ltd. received a new (amount-unspecified) investment from Supernal, the mobility division of Hyundai Motor Group, to boost UAP’s plans to build a network of vertiports in the UK. The company’s first vertiport has begun construction in a parking lot in Coventry, and the company plans three weeks of cargo drone test flights in April, reported Engineering News-Record.
Alabama Airport P3 Attracts Investor Interest
The Gulf Shores Airport Authority (in the coastal city of that name) received four responses to its request for qualifications for a public-private partnership (P3) for a new terminal at its Jack Edwards National Airport. The four responses came from Groupe ADP (France), Dublin Airport Authority (Ireland), AvPorts (US), and TBI Airport Management (US). The planned terminal is estimated to cost $20 million, but the project is viewed as one of a small number of potential airport P3 projects.
Melbourne Airport Planning a Third Runway
Privatized Melbourne Airport, Australia’s second-largest airport, this month announced plans to build a third runway to cope with a projected doubling of passenger volume over the next 20 years. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the airport “frequently experienced delays in peak periods due to the airport’s congested cross-runway system.” The plan is to add a parallel runway. A public comment period will run through May 16.
Avports Partners with Jaunt Air Mobility for eVTOL Network
Airport management company Avports has signed a memorandum of understanding with Jaunt Air Mobility, developer of an eVTOL that uses slow-rotor compound technology for an aircraft with an 80-to-100-mile range. Jaunt has developed the concept of an Access Skyways alliance to support the integration of eVTOLs with airports and the overall aviation system.
Canada Requiring More ADS-B Equipage as of 2023
ANSP Nav Canada announced]that by Feb. 23, 2023, all aircraft flying above 12,500 feet must transmit ADS-B/Out signals. This will require general aviation aircraft to use 1090 MHZ transponders with both top- and bottom-mounted antennas to enable the signals to be received by both space-based and ground-based ADS-B receivers. Similar requirements for lower airspace are expected “no sooner than 2026.”
Philadelphia Airport Seeks to Privatize Parking
Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) is ending its 50-year relationship with the Philadelphia Parking Authority, after completing payments on the $54 million PPA bond issue that financed the airport’s current parking structure. PHL now plans to go out to bid with private-sector parking companies to take over operating airport parking.
Russia Shifting to Non-GPS Loran for Ukraine Invasion
GPS World reported on February 17 that since Russian military doctrine assumes that its GLONASS space-based navigation system will likely be jammed or spoofed during hostilities, for its Ukraine invasion it will rely on Loran-C, which covers much of Russia. Loran operates in an entirely different frequency region than GPS and GLONASS, and it has much stronger signal strength. Three of Russia’s Chayka/Loran stations “have Ukraine surrounded,” according to a Loran expert quoted in the article.
Full SpaceX Starlink Constellation Questioned by NASA
As reported by The Wall Street Journal, NASA is expressing concerns over low-orbit traffic congestion and potential collisions, as SpaceX and others continue with plans for huge numbers of satellites to provide global broadband service. SpaceX in January asked the Federal Communications Commissionto authorize another 30,000 Starlink satellites, in addition to the currently-authorized 12,000. However, NASA did not submit any comments to FCC opposing the SpaceX request.
San Antonio Airport Connector P3 Moving Forward
Last month, two teams were pre-qualified by the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority to advance to the next stage in the process for a project to link the airport with downtown San Antonio. The selected teams were Elon Musk’s The Boring Company and a consortium of SAK Construction, ModuTram, and Thalle Construction. The former is proposing twin tunnels using Tesla vehicles, at an estimated cost of $241-298 million. The latter proposes an automated bus system traveling on a combination of elevated and tunnel right of way, at an estimated cost of $330 million. The request for qualifications to which the teams responded called for a private partner to design, build, and possibly operate and finance the airport connector.
Rockford Airport Seeking P3 Cargo Facilities
Chicago-Rockford International Airport is expected to issue a request for proposals this month for two 400,000 square foot cargo buildings, estimated to cost $100-to-$150 million. The airport is “open to” a public-private partnership (P3) approach to the project, according to a report in Inframation News.
Fitch Ratings Sees Airport Traffic Recovery in 2021
In a Feb. 16 report, Fitch Ratings found that U.S. airports had reached an average recovery of 81% of pre-COVID-19 volume by Sept. 2021. Toll roads have done even better, the report says, reaching an average of 95% of pre-pandemic traffic by last September. The data are included in Fitch’s latest U.S. Airports and Toll Roads Traffic Monitor.
Autonomous Flights by Sikorsky Black Hawk Helicopter
Earlier this month, a Sikorsky Black Hawk (UH-60) carried out two fully autonomous flights at Fort Campbell, KY. The aircraft used a Sikorsky-developed autonomy system in place of a human pilot. On the longer of the two flights, the Black Hawk maneuvered around simulated buildings. The test flights were sponsored by DARPA, under an ongoing autonomous vehicle program called Alias.
H2 Clipper Plans Hydrogen Airships
Santa Barbara-based startup H2 Clipper is developing an airship that would use hydrogen gas for buoyancy and propulsion as well as transporting green hydrogen to users in Europe. The prototype is designed for a payload of 340,000 pounds and a range of 6,000 miles, at speeds of up to 175 miles per hour. The aim is to transport liquid hydrogen from locations where it is plentiful (e.g., the Middle East) to locations of high demand (Europe). On the return trips, freight would be carried. It aims to fly a subscale prototype in 2024.
State Airport Authority Hopes to Buy Sikorsky Airport
The Connecticut Airport Authority (operator of Bradley International and several small airports) has offered $10 million to the city of Bridgeport, which owns and currently operates the airport (which is named after helicopter pioneer Igor Sikorsky).
Correction re: Turbulence Aware
Last month’s article on the SafeLand system mentioned a previous article about Turbulence Aware, a system that measures and reports turbulence in flight. That article erroneously stated that Turbulence Aware was developed at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). Although it was based on NCAR research, it was developed privately. Today the program is sponsored by the International Air Transport Association, which tells me that 15 airlines use or plan to use the system. See article. My thanks to Perry Flint at IATA for this information.
“The FAA cannot be treated as just another ‘interested party’ that can be expected to accept quietly an outcome it deems insufficiently tested in the real world. Indeed, walking away from the issue despite its continuing uncertainty would represent a clear violation of FAA’s statutory obligation to ensure the safety of flight. Simply put, the FAA should not be required to bear the burden of proof before the FCC on a matter of aviation safety; if anything, it should be just the reverse. The bottom line is clear: the FCC should never be permitted to make a decision on the use of spectrum that FAA believes might compromise aviation safety. It must ensure that the FAA’s concerns are resolved to its satisfaction before making any decision, and certainly before auctioning spectrum, lest bidders be inadequately informed of possible limits on the spectrum they are bidding on.”
—Letter to House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee leadership from nine current and former members of the FAA Management Advisory Council, Feb. 2, 2022
“Ensuring that mechanisms like the EU slot regulation—which should guarantee the optimal use of airport capacity—are fit for purpose should be the highest of priorities. Once the effects of the [Covid-19] crisis on aviation have been thoroughly evaluated and lessons learned, we look forward to engaging in a root-and-branch review of the regulation.”
—Olivier Jankovec (Director General, ACI Europe), Victoria Morris, “European Airports Back Latest EU Slot Waiver,” Aviation Daily, July 27, 2021
“We’ve learned a few things. One, that politicians are not very good at planning and constructing airports. And two, once you have a design, you shouldn’t change it. You have to stick to it, you have to finish construction and then you have to do what every other airport does—you have to adapt your facility to the needs of the users.”
—Patrick Muller (COO of Berlin Brandenburg Airport), Tara Craig, “A Capital Asset,” International Airport Review, Winter Issue 2021
“The SAF [sustainable aviation fuel] delivery system for much of Europe is owned and controlled by NATO. It is fair to say that NATO is not as green as Greta. NATO has shown very little interest in SAFs to date, and now might not be the time to propose that it do the work necessary to certify that SAFs can be acceptable in fighter jet engines. Untangling that, finding ways to allow the delivery of SAFs to airports and streamlining and codifying joint user hydrant installations is work on a platform that cuts across national boundaries and adds value. It would also be interesting to know why we continue to charge airlines at an airport on a per-weight basis, instead of making clear that airports can charge what they believe works best for their airline customers.”
—Andrew Charlton, “What Does Better Look Like?” Aviation Intelligence Reporter, February 2022