Boeing to start satellite air traffic control tests

New system would challenge Raytheon, Lockheed Martin

Soon after New Year's Day, a Boeing Co. 737-400 research and test airplane will take off from Seattle. The plane, called Connexion One, will carry equipment to test satellite-based communications systems for air traffic management.

The flight is an important step for Boeing's air traffic management unit, which the Chicago company launched in 2001, and a milestone for creating a system to replace the ground-based system.

If the test is successful, it could mark the first step toward the Federal Aviation Administration's long-term adoption of a satellite-based system. Moreover, Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Co., the two dominant air traffic management vendors for the FAA, could find themselves playing catch-up to the Boeing proposal.

When Boeing first announced it was entering the air traffic management market, Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md., and Raytheon of Lexington, Mass., dismissed Boeing's plans for a satellite-based system as too expensive. Officials at the FAA and other industry observers said the existing ground-based system -- and plans for its enhancement -- was not as creaky as Boeing portrayed.

The industry talk has died down somewhat, but that doesn't mean the potential for conflict has eased, said Paul Nisbet, principal with JSA Research, an aerospace consulting and research firm in Newport, R.I.

"There's all sorts of special interests here, every which way," Nisbet said. "Certainly, Raytheon and Lockheed have a stake in this. Both have a stake in the air traffic control system that now exists [and] they're both capable of working in the satellite arena."

Politics, too, is likely to play a role as the companies lobby their cases within the administration and on Capitol Hill. In December 2001, in the wake of the economic downturn and decline in air travel, which sparked a falloff in aircraft purchases, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., pushed through a spending measure that required the Pentagon to lease 100 Boeing 767 jets and convert them to refueling tankers.

The price tag, estimated at $37 billion by the Congressional Budget Office, exceeded by $12 billion the amount it would cost to buy the planes outright, demonstrating the economic importance of Boeing's health and the depth of its political muscle.

Murray was also involved in securing the FAA funding to do the satellite navigation feasibility study. The program, called the Global Communication Navigation Surveillance System, is a $23 million, 21-month contract. Murray shepherded the project through Congress in last year's supplemental appropriations bill. Boeing is matching the FAA funding dollar for dollar, making it a $46 million effort.

A Lockheed spokesman said his company originally bid on the project, but "after we submitted the bid, we received some clarifications regarding the project from the government, and decided at that point that the bid conditions were not to our liking." The company withdrew, he said, leaving the project to Boeing.

"I think it's the reaction of the FAA and the politicians that will determine which way [the proposed satellite system] will go," Nisbet said. "They'll decide whether they want to proceed with it or not. ... Certainly, those politicians who are from Raytheon or Lockheed will be watching out for their interests."

The FAA already has an extensive program in place to revamp the air traffic control system. The Operational Evolution Plan, a 10-year program unveiled in summer 2001, had a price tag of about $11 billion for the FAA. Boeing is positioning the satellite-based concept as the follow-on to the plan and a fresh approach to the challenge of moving ever-increasing numbers of aircraft through the skies.

But implementing the plan will involve huge investment in air traffic control systems, two-way air and ground communications, new systems on aircraft, software and satellites, to name just some of the elements. The company declined to estimate a price tag for such a change.

Boeing has high hopes for satellite-based air traffic management, in part because it would increase the capacity in the system and allow the company to sell more planes, Nisbet said. Just as important, the technology provides the framework to create a worldwide air traffic management system, he said.

Today's air traffic control systems are land-based and geographically limited; satellite systems would not have those limitations.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 added increased interest in a satellite navigation system, said Dennis Muilenburg, vice president of engineering with Boeing's air traffic management unit, by drawing attention to the need for greater safety and security in the skies.

One of the objectives of the test program is to determine the feasibility of a secure, highly integrated broadband communications network, to allow much more extensive monitoring of activities within an airplane, in the air and on the ground.

The feasibility program has three major features, said Katy Fleming, Boeing's program manager for the satellite navigation feasibility project.

The first is what Boeing considers one of its core competencies: large-scale systems integration. The company will identify the system's requirements, including architecture and alternative modifications, conduct economic benefit analysis to build the business case and look at transition issues, which Fleming referred to as "great concept; now how do you implement it?"

The second feature is demonstrations. The January test flight will evaluate broadband communications, such as in-flight video and voice communications. Boeing also wants to learn "how federal air marshals can communicate within the airplane and also communicate to the ground without the knowledge of potential terrorists," Fleming said.

The test flight also will look at monitoring flight path conformance and how to notify controllers and others if there is a deviation, she said.

Two other demonstrations are planned, both for the fourth quarter of 2003. One is a flight over the Gulf of Mexico, to evaluate how aircraft can transition from a non-radar environment, like flying over an ocean, to radar coverage over land. The other is related to airport security, such as trying out techniques for monitoring what is going on inside an airplane while it is at the terminal.

The third major feature of the project is the development of tools and models for systems engineering and simulation. While the demonstrations will provide a lot of useful information, Fleming said, there are some very complex questions to be addressed, such as ways to look at aircraft flow and capacity across the United States, taking into account deviations, such as weather.

The company has committed at least 70 employees to the program, Fleming said, and several of Boeing's business units and subsidiaries are involved.

The satellite control feasibility program is an important first step toward a vision of what will replace the existing system in the long term, Muilenburg said.

"In order to achieve the security and capacity goals of the National Airspace System 10 and 20 years downstream, we have to change the operational [concept] of how NAS works," Muilenburg said. "What this activity [does] is allow us to identify some of the near-term transition steps that would get us on the long-term path to success." *

Staff Writer Patience Wait can be reached at pwait@postnewsweektech.com.

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