New Satellite Service Makes Safer Skies for Oceanic Flights
A Boeing 777 with the insignia of the fictional Oceanic Airlines from the TV show Lost.
CREDIT: ABC Studios/Bad Robot/Grass Skirt Productions
Transoceanic flights fall off radar screens daily without flying anywhere close to the Bermuda Triangle or the island from "Lost." That means passenger jet pilots must report their locations in poor-quality radio messages and fly within air traffic corridors at least 50 miles apart to avoid disaster in the crowded skies.
But that could change with an FAA-approved satellite service capable of reporting aircraft locations or flight paths from anywhere in the world.
Such a service might have given air traffic controllers the location of Air France Flight 447 within minutes of it crashing into the Atlantic Ocean two years ago. Now airlines have the choice of using the Future Air Navigation System (FANS) over Iridium's 66-satellite network . (U.S. government regulators gave the go-ahead in June.)
"With capability like this, you get a report back every four minutes at the minimum to know where aircraft is," said Don Thoma, executive vice president of marketing for Iridium Communications. "Quite frankly, this capability's time has come."
Passengers may spend less time waiting on the ground if air traffic controllers can put more planes safely into the air within the same space. The 50-mile separation distance can shrink to 30 miles under the FAA approval guidelines.
The technology can also save on fuel and money for airlines during the long transoceanic flights . That's because the more relaxed space restrictions would allow FAA air traffic controllers to slot FANS-equipped planes into "fast lanes" that may even fly more direct routes over the Earth's poles. They could also more easily direct flights around stormy weather and take advantage of jet streams.
Continental Airlines already has plans to put the service on 150 planes it helped Iridium test the service on a limited trial basis. Iridium first began developing the service six years ago at the urging of several airline partners.
"The airline industry is very cognizant of certain issues like how you achieve cost savings," Thoma told InnovationNewsDaily. "Fuel is obviously number one as an uncontrollable cost item. Safety is always an important issue. Increasingly, carbon emissions and the environmental impact are important as well."
Besides radio communications, airlines can also use a geostationary satellite service provided by Inmarsat. But Iridium's hockey puck-size technology cuts down drastically on aerodynamic drag compared to the bathtub-size antenna required for Inmarsat, Thoma said. He anticipates Iridium's service costing $30,000 to $50,000 depending on the aircraft, compared to $125,000 or $250,000 for Inmarsat.
"The cost-benefit analysis we've seen shows it's a one- to two-year payback in savings, which is phenomenal for an airline when making capital investments," Thoma said.
Rollout of the service will take time as airline customers slowly begin installing the service on their aircraft during scheduled maintenance checks. But Iridium has already begun talking to aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus about helping with such installation.
If Iridium can get its technology approved by other air traffic control organizations, it could expand FANS over Iridium into a true global service. And no commercial aircraft would ever have to fly out of contact with civilization again.