April 9, 2013

US Airways adds new safety software to trans-Atlantic flights

New apps will help air traffic controllers direct trans-Atlantic flights even in the middle of the ocean.

Flight safety in US Airways’ trans-Atlantic cockpit? Now, there’s an app for that.

The Tempe, Ariz.-based carrier is rolling out four new software applications, in fact, that are designed to increase both the safety and efficiency of flights across the Atlantic.

The airline plans to have the new software features on its 20 Airbus A-330 jets by the end of the year. Those planes fly daily from Charlotte to London’s Heathrow airport and other destinations in Europe.

US Airways is the first domestic airline to get federal approval to install the new software suite, known as SafeRoute. It’s tied to the Federal Aviation Administration’s multi-billion dollar NextGen program, which is meant to modernize the air traffic control system with technology such as GPS.

The new NextGen systems have been slow to be implemented, however, and could face further delays as a result of the federal funding cuts known as sequestration. Last week, US Airways CEO Doug Parker expressed frustration during a speech that NextGen has been slow to pay dividends.

“We as an industry have not seen nearly the rate of improvement that we should have seen for the amount of capital that’s been invested,” Parker said. “We should be seeing more progress than we have, and we haven’t seen that.”

US Airways operates about 90 percent of daily flights at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, which is the airline’s busiest hub.

Once widely installed, the SafeRoute software equipment will help pilots see other trans-Atlantic flights even in the middle of the ocean, where there’s no radar coverage. That’s not the case now.

“They only know where you are when you make a position report,” said US Airways Capt. Thomas Campobasso, a senior training pilot. He was demonstrating the new safety equipment in one of the flight simulators at US Airways’ training center at Charlotte Douglas.

The SafeRoute software relies on information planes broadcast to one another. It lets airline pilots follow planes in front of them at a specific distance more easily, both in open airspace and on approach to airports. It also allows pilots to track other planes on the ground, helping avoid collisions on runways and while taxiing.

Those features could allow pilots to follow each other across the ocean on tracks as close as 15 miles, down from the customary 80 miles today, Campobasso said. And that means more flights on the same tracks, leading to more efficient travel.

Over land, planes can follow a few miles behind each other, but they are typically instructed to leave more room in areas where radar coverage isn’t available.

Campobasso expects more widespread industry adoption of the new software applications will come when the financial benefits to airlines become apparent.

“Usually the carrot at the end of the stick is if it saves an airline money,” he said. “If the air traffic control system adopts a system like this and gives us preferential treatment ... than many more carriers will want to adopt it.”

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