It’s a good time to be an airline. Low fuel prices, cheap credit, and rising demand for air travel—particularly on budget flights—allowed airlines to add to their fleets and carry an unprecedented 4.1 billion passengers in 2017, a 7.1% increase from a year earlier, according to the United Nation’s civil aviation authority.
But while that growth makes for a lot more paying customers, it also makes for more aircraft competing for airspace in some of the world’s busiest airspace. Air traffic controllers face a particularly thorny challenge when routing a growing number of aircraft through busy transoceanic corridors like the heavily-trafficked North Atlantic, where terrestrial radar is limited and is largely unable to track aircraft in real time.
With only a vague idea of any given aircraft’s precise moment-to-moment location, controllers often maintain a gap of as much of 100 miles between aircraft, a safety precaution that forces pilots to take routes that are longer and require burning more fuel. “You would think aircraft fly pretty straight from point A to point B,” says Don Thoma, CEO Aireon. “But [flight routes] can look more like a spirograph.”
Aireon, a partnership between global communications satellite operator Iridium and a handful of air traffic control providers, is trying to change that by connecting global air traffic to a satellite-based communication network. Through technology known as ADS-B, Aireon would track commercial aircraft anywhere in the world in real time—including over remote stretches of ocean—allowing controllers to space aircraft more tightly and giving pilots the ability to select better routes and altitudes.
The result: shorter flight times, lower fuel consumption, reduced carbon emissions, smoother rides, and a potential savings of hundreds of millions of dollars annually for both airlines and air cargo companies like UPS and FedEx.
To manage air traffic optimally, controllers and pilots need three things: Pilots must know their precise location; controllers must quickly and reliably communicate with all pilots in their airspace. And to make the entire enterprise run efficiently and safely, controllers must be able to track the precise locations, headings, altitudes, and speeds of every aircraft in a given area.
Anywhere that one of these components is missing or unreliable, controllers must resort to safety precautions like spacing aircraft dozens of miles apart to ensure they don’t fly too close to one another. Currently, commercial aircraft have GPS aboard (ticking the first box) and voice communications between controllers and pilots are generally good (and getting better).
The ability to track an aircraft in real time—known as “surveillance” in aviation parlance—is far more hit-and-miss. Ground-based radar systems provide decent surveillance when aircraft are over land, but 70% of the globe lacks conventional radar coverage. In some cases, an aircraft flying outside of terrestrial radar’s reach will occasionally transmit data to the ground by “pinging” an orbiting satellite, but transmissions are infrequent enough that a plane can travel more than 100 miles between them (See: Malaysia Airlines flight 370, which disappeared somewhere over the Indian Ocean in 2014).
ADS-B—shorthand for automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast—layers realtime surveillance atop the GPS and voice communications that pilots and controllers already have. An ADS-B transponder on an aircraft automatically beams pertinent flight data to receivers on the ground twice per second. In other words, the aircraft’s computers automatically and continuously communicate with controllers on the ground, providing an unprecedented degree of realtime surveillance.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has already deployed ADS-B receivers on the ground in the U.S. and, along with several other civil aviation authorities around the globe, has mandated that all aircraft integrate ADS-B technology by the early 2020s. Aireon’s space-based network—once complete—would cover every square mile of airspace that land-based ADS-B stations can’t, filling a huge gap in coverage and completing the network.
The company already has ADS-B hubs operating aboard 40 recently-launched Iridium satellites—the first of an eventual 75 satellites that will replace the company’s aging constellation. The remaining satellites will launch aboard several SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets over the course of this year.
The eventual working fleet of 66 satellites—nine of the 75 will serve as spares—will offer Aireon global coverage that other satellite operators can’t touch. For instance, London-based Inmarsat receives and relays data “pings” from aircraft operating around the globe (its network was the last to hear from MH 370 before it went missing), but its fleet of 13 geosynchronous satellites covers only part of the world’s oceans. The global reach of Iridium’s satellite network positions Iridium and Aireon to hold a distinct advantage in space-based ADS-B for the foreseeable future—an investment that’s already starting to dividends.
“Now that Aireon is actually getting live data—it’s not total coverage yet, but they’re actually getting something like a billion data points per month and with only about 30 satellites online—you can really see how rich the data is,” says Joe Bertapelle, director of strategic airspace programs for JetBlue airline. “As well as where there’s room for improvement.”
The room for improvement is significant, according to sources inside and outside the industry. In the North Atlantic, operators using space-based ADS-B could save more than 33 million gallons of fuel annually, translating to many millions in dollars saved alongside reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 320,000 metric tons, says NAV CANADA, the Canadian air traffic control operator that is also a partner in Aireon.
A Purdue University study released in late 2016 took a more macro look at space-based ADS-B. If such a network was implemented globally, airlines could save more than 110 million gallons of fuel annually by 2020—nearly equivalent to removing 300,000 cars from the road.
For airlines, it doesn’t take much to make a big difference to bottom lines. “Safely reducing the separation standard from its current minimum of 30 nautical miles down to 15 nautical miles means they’ll be able to save something like $700 per flight across the North Atlantic,” says Aireon’s Thoma. “That represents something like $300-plus million per year in fuel savings just for the North Atlantic.”
But airlines don’t have to operate long-haul, intercontinental routes to reap the benefits “All you have to do is save $200 per flight and that turns into a very large yearly number,” Bertapelle says. If a three-hour flight from New York to San Juan can take advantage of better altitudes, a more optimized climb, and a more direct trajectory to trim even $100 off the operating cost, that’s a win for an airline that puts hundreds of flights aloft each day.
“I don’t want to give the impression I’m an Aireon advocate and that’s my next career,” Bertapelle says. “They’ve got to prove their way into the airspace. All I’m saying is that everything we’ve modeled in the last three-to-five years so far is meeting or exceeding expectations.”
Though the benefits of ADS-B, in general, and space-based ADS-B, in particular, are already creeping into the industry, Bertapelle says, passengers may not notice significant changes immediately. Airlines are still retrofitting older aircraft with ADS-B transponders ahead of the FAA’s January 2020 deadline, and until the industry gets closer to fleet-wide adoption, controllers will continue to safely manage transoceanic air traffic by putting miles and miles of distance between planes.
But change is on the horizon.
“I would say by third quarter 2019 it should look considerably different than it does today,” Bertapelle says. “We should see more than 80% equipped by mid-2019, and once you hit that 80% mark the FAA starts managing traffic differently.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the partnership between global communications satellite operator Iridium and air traffic control providers. It is Aireon.