Canada-U.K. venture is watershed moment in air traffic control

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Photo Credit: Ersin Ergin/Shutterstock

A joint venture between Canada's air traffic control operator NavCanada and satellite company Iridium went live Tuesday with the first air traffic surveillance system capable of providing real-time global coverage. 

The Aireon system is now in trial use over the North Atlantic, where it is being used by NavCanada and U.K. air traffic control operator NATS. 

NATS and the air traffic control organizations in Italy, Ireland and Denmark are also investors in Aireon. 

At a press conference Tuesday, Aireon CEO Don Thoma said that his company's surveillance system will immediately improve the way air traffic flows across the world's oceans. 

"This is a historic achievement on par with some of the most significant advances in aviation," Thoma said. 

Allowing the Aireon system to have global reach is the network of 66 satellites that Iridium has deployed around the globe, the last of which went into orbit in January. Unlike older-generation satellite networks, which typically only spanned between 65 degrees north latitude and 65 degrees south latitude, the Iridium network spans from pole to pole. Aireon has equipped those satellites with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast systems (ADS-B) that communicate directly with aircraft transponders. 

In the U.S. and EU, aircraft will be required by 2020 to be equipped with those ADS-B transponders so that air traffic controllers will be able to track planes with the satellite-based NextGen system that the FAA currently has under development. 

Once aircraft are ADS-B equipped, the Aireon network will have the capability to track their movements globally.

Speaking via satellite during Tuesday's press conference, NATS CEO Martin Rolfe said that the operation trial of the Aireon system over the North Atlantic is now enabling U.K. controllers to see where aircraft are positioned every eight seconds instead of pilots reporting their position every 14 minutes under the previous method. That change will allow for a variety of safety and operational improvements. 

On the safety side, Thoma said, continuous surveillance will put an end to tracking gaps while also aiding search and rescue missions. 

On the operational end, Rolfe said, controllers can allow a minimum distance of 14 nautical miles between aircraft on transatlantic routes, down from 40, making airspace more flexible and providing room for continued growth in transatlantic flights, which already number more than 500,000 per year. 

Ninety percent of flights, Rolfe added, will be able to get the flight routes they want, up from 60%. 

More efficient routing will also lead to fuel savings of more than $300 per flight, Thoma said, while saving two tons of carbon dioxide emissions per flight. 

Though the FAA has not signed on to the Aireon system, the agency has been actively involved in its design and testing, Thoma said, and began operational trials in the Caribbean last fall.

Aireon also shared data from Ethiopian Flight 302 with the FAA as the agency deliberated grounding 737 Max aircraft. That plane crashed on March 10, killing everyone aboard.  

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