As I prepare to attend MEBA again this year- I am reminded of the incredible explosion in infrastructure within the United Arab Emirates and Dubai in particular. Dubai and other nearby emirates- to their credit- boast the most modern buildings- transportation infrastructures and cultures.Back to Articles
What is our Government waiting for?
As I prepare to attend MEBA again this year- I am reminded of the incredible explosion in infrastructure within the United Arab Emirates and Dubai in particular. Dubai and other nearby emirates- to their credit- boast the most modern buildings- transportation infrastructures and cultures.
Nowhere is this more evident than in air transportation. The Middle East has one of the world’s busiest and most complex airspace environments. Forecasts call for growth in Dubai to increase from 40 million passengers annually today to well over 150 million passengers annually by 2030.
Nowhere in past history can comparable growth be found- and the Middle East - more specifically Dubai - is preparing for it now with the construction of over 39 airports- including one which will be able to handle capacity of 160 million passengers and 12 million tons of freight.
One example of this fast-paced modern growth is Dubai International Airport- the major hub within the Middle East. Given that Dubai is a relatively small area- the numbers are simply staggering: it’s the 15th busiest airport in the world- handling 40.9 million passengers annually; the 4th busiest airport for international passenger traffic; and the 7th busiest for freight cargo measured in tons (1.927 million in 2010). The height of this showcase is the airport’s Terminal 3- which cost nearly $5 billion to construct- and is the single largest building by floor space anywhere in the world.
Not content with one of the premier airports in the world- though- Dubai is already building the next super-airport - Al Maktoum International Airport - which opened cargo operations in 2010- and will accommodate passengers in 2011.
FAA OVERSIGHT PROBLEM
All this is in stark contrast to the antiquated airports in the United States- and more importantly the Air Traffic Control (ATC) system we have employed for decades. Compared to Europe- the Middle East and many other areas around the Globe- the US operates ATC from the Stone Age.
The FAA’s oversight is one of the main problems- as has been our Government in general. The FAA’s solution- NextGen (Next Generation Air Transport System) envisions the switch from ground-based control to satellite-based control over our skies. In spite of the fact that much of the initial technology needed has existed for over a decade- and is in use throughout much of the world- the FAA is still dragging its feet.
The original plan called for 100% changeover by 2025 with “mid-term” implementation by 2018. In theory- the new system would increase safety- provide operational efficiencies- and cut greenhouse gas emissions by the better planning of flight routing. The centerpiece of this technological upgrade will be ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast). ADS-B In receives the data- and ADS-B Out transmits the position of the aircraft.
A clear economic example for fast deployment of this new system can be seen over the busy skies of Manhattan: In 2009 the Partnership for New York City calculated that air traffic congestion alone cost the New York City Metro area just over $2.5 billion annually. The report further points out that nearly three quarters of all delays in the United States originate out of the New York City Metro area. Taking into account both the safety impact and economic impact across the country highlights the importance that NextGen be implemented sooner- rather than later.
Arguments abound surrounding the FAA’s role in designing- managing and operating this massive change-over- which some experts estimate will cost somewhere between $50 billion to $100 billion. Safety is believed to be too important to entrust to private industry - fears exist that profit-making could end up winning out over safety.
Nevertheless- with air safety at stake- the FAA has been slow to move on this important project- and evidently has no clear direction. From where I’m sitting- chief among the issues is a complete lack of control by competing interests in both the private and government sectors- and the question of who should shoulder the financial burden.
The system proposed would use a mishmash of current and future technology- though the FAA itself cannot - and has not yet - set standards for the equipment needed- or provided any type of schedule for design or manufacture of the system needed to start implementation.
The commercial airlines have been vocal in their criticism of the FAA’s handling of the matter- and the pace of progress. The airlines want the system to be implemented now- and operational within 5-7 years - an impossible feat considering the FAA has yet to set any design and testing schedules.
GOVERNMENT/TECHNOLOGICAL PACE MISMATCH
The main issue facing us today in aviation is the speed at which Government moves- and the speed at which technology moves. The two have nothing in common. Given the pace at which the FAA is moving ahead- the technology will be outdated before it gets off the drawing board- more so when it actually is 100% operational. We are talking about 15- possibly 20 years from now - which is an eternity in ‘tech land’.
I was recently reminded of this while watching the previews for the sequel to Wall Street where Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) is released from jail and- given his belongings - including one oversized- brick-like cell phone. During this 20+ year period we’ve come a long way.
Can you remember having to find the best reception (assuming of course you could find any reception at all) and stand in that one spot to talk? Compare Gekko’s phone to the current iPhone (about the size of a credit card) which can do literally hundreds of tasks- such as take pictures/video- play music- show TV- store nearly 14-000 songs- or house the equivalent text of one quarter of the Library of Congress.
All of this provides a good analogy to the radar-based ATC system we are now using- compared to what we require. Another good example of both the pace of technology and how the private sector can improve upon Government technology is the Internet. The origins of the Internet date back to 1960 when the United States military created distributed computer networks that formed the basis for the backbone that would become the Internet in conjunction with several research universities.
Known as DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) it would become the Internet as we know it today. Yet it was private industry- unencumbered by government regulation that created the Internet boom which today is still largely unregulated- and has no centralized governing authority.
Could such an approach work towards transforming our antiquated government-run ATC system? Unless you believe Al Gore invented the Internet- the probability that the FAA and other governmental organizations could do so cheaper- faster and more efficiently than private industry is out of touch with the past 50 years of history.
My hope is that we do not wait for a US aviation disaster to occur before giving serious thought to how to best handle this process- be it through the FAA or private industry. Much as 9/11 occurred needlessly due to lack of safety precautions already in use around the rest of the aviation world (for example Israel) but largely ignored here in the US- our antiquated radar based air traffic management system is a disaster waiting to occur.
The myth that private industry (mainly commercial airlines) will not advance the cause because of cost is short-sighted in the face of safety issues- delayed and missed flights- wasted fuel- and other economic costs incurred that total billions of dollars in lost revenue to our economy.
This article is too short to highlight many of the valid issues that exist between all the parties involved- but unless we act now and allow private industry to take the lead with a concise- coherent- and expeditious strategy we risk another air disaster of epic proportions.
Andrew Bradley is senior vice president- Global Sales & Acquisitions at Avjet Corporation- an international provider of aircraft charter and management solutions. The company is headquartered in Burbank- California- and maintains a global presence in Washington D.C.- Seoul- Dubai- Abu Dhabi- Moscow and other locations around the globe. To learn more about the company- visit www.avjet.com