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American Shipper

JetBlue to start NextGen pilot

JetBlue to start NextGen pilot

   The Federal Aviation Administration will pay $4.2 million to install advanced avionics on 35 JetBlue planes in an effort to demonstrate its cost-savings and spur industry to invest billions of dollars in the new technology.

   The seed money is intended to advance the NextGen navigation system, which has suffered from lack of congressional funding and a reluctance of airlines to outfit aircraft until the system is fully in place.

   Part of the problem is that the FAA is operating under its 17th temporary funding resolution because there is no agreement on a multiyear budget. That means the agency has operated at the same funding level since fiscal year 2008.

   NextGen relies on planes broadcasting their position via satellite rather than being tracked by ground-based radar, which allows much more precise management of the air traffic control system. Many planes have Global Positioning System technology, but NextGen is a combination of procedures, electronics and information systems that manage all the data. Less need for buffer space, or non-linear routes to maintain ground contact, means planes can take off, land and fly in closer proximity, fly more direct routes and descend in continuous manner, saving time and fuel. The airline industry is a big supporter of the concept because it enables the air traffic control system to operate more efficiently and reduce the need to close airspace for adverse weather. But the full benefits of the system won't be realized until most planes utilize the modern avionics.

   The FAA estimates that NextGen will reduce flight delays about 21 percent, and save 1.4 billion gallons of jet fuel and almost 14 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2018, assuming air traffic grows 19 percent. Failure to implement NextGen by then would cost the U.S. economy $22 billion per year, with the annual economic impact growing to $40 billion if the system isn't in place by 2033.

   NexGen represents 'the next quantum leap in air traffic control. We've gone from bonfires, to beacons, to radios, to radars and now to satellites,' FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto said.

   Industry groups say airlines will need to invest up to $20 billion in NextGen equipment. Per-plane costs are expected to vary depending on whether an aircraft is retrofitted or has the equipment installed at the factory.

   All aircraft in controlled airspace will be required to have the modern navigation systems by 2020.

   The FAA estimates it will need to spend $15 billion to $22 billion for ground stations, software and other technology. It is gradually expanding its ground stations and plans to have nationwide coverage by 2013. Among areas with the Automatic Dependent Surveillance ' Broadcast systems are Louisville, Ky., and Philadelphia. Louisville was selected as a deployment site because UPS voluntarily equipped 107 of its aircraft with the associated avionics in order save time and fuel at its WorldPort air cargo hub.

   Controllers in Philadelphia also have the capability to use ADS-B to track and separate aircraft. The coverage area extends 60 nautical miles from Philadelphia International Airport and about 10,000 feet up. It also covers ramps and the approach corridors to runways. Philadelphia was also selected because of UPS's large operational presence there and the fact that a large portion of its fleet has the new navigational technology, according to the FAA.

   The FAA also has satellite coverage over the Gulf of Mexico. When aircraft fly out of radar range over the ocean, pilots have to manually report their position and air traffic controllers have to leave 10 minutes between flights.

   Last year, the FAA began a trial program to equip 20 US Airways planes with the ADS-B avionics. The FAA also has agreements with United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, flight schools and other aviation industry partners for technology testing and training.

   JetBlue will use the modern navigation systems on Airbus A320 planes flying from Boston and New York to Florida and the Caribbean beginning in 2012.

   The agreement will also allow JetBlue to fly a new route to the Caribbean, and could lead to the development of two new, shorter routes to the Caribbean. The FAA said it will collect NextGen data by observing and conducting real-time operational evaluations of ADS-B on revenue flights.

   The existing route is supported by overlapping radar coverage that extends out over the water, but satellite tracking would allow it to remain open even if a ground radar station goes down, Takemoto said.

   JetBlue will maintain the systems and pay the cost of aircraft downtime while ADS-B avionics are installed. It will also fund the necessary training for dispatchers and flight crews, including simulator time.

   JetBlue Chief Executive Officer Dave Barger said NextGen is a boon for his airline because it operates a lot of flights in the congested Northeast. He said the company would eventually equip the rest of its A320 fleet at its own expense.



Southwest-AirTran merger to benefit shippers

   The pending merger agreement between Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways is 'the best thing that could happen for domestic air cargo,' Brandon Fried, the head of the Airforwarders Association, said Feb. 9 at a Cargo Network Services conference in Arlington, Va.

   Southwest is a large and growing player in air cargo. AirTran, which used to offer cargo service, has a lot of planes.

   In 2010, Southwest moved 176 million pounds of cargo.

   Dallas-based Southwest is also taking delivery of more Boeing 737-700s, which are good cargo planes, Fried said in a follow-up interview.

   'My assumption is that Southwest is going to increase its service offerings with the AirTran merger and will probably be deploying those aircraft in the new system,' he said.

   That will increase the ability of freight forwarders to offer next-day and same-day shipping service throughout the United States and ultimately international destinations that may be served by Southwest in the future, Fried said.

   Southwest is purely a domestic airline (although it has a new partnership with Mexican carrier Volaris). AirTran has routes to Aruba; Bermuda; Cancun, Mexico; the Bahamas; Jamaica; and Puerto Rico.

   The only downside is that AirTran flies a lot of Boeing 717 planes, which are not as desirable from a freight standpoint.

   Southwest only operates 737-series aircraft for maintenance efficiency and Fried said he expects the airline will gradually phase out the 717 platform.

   In February, the FAA accepted Southwest's plan to combine operations with AirTran under a single operating certificate. The deal is expected to close in the second quarter.