Advocating for better air navigation

Nancy Graham

Nancy Graham has direct experience with the limits of airliner flight tracking and data technology within the airline industry. The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and the shootdown of MH17 over Ukraine happened during her eight-year term as director of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Air Navigation Bureau. Now in the private sector, she continues to advocate for improved flight tracking and for proposals to stream black box data from the cockpit. As a consultant, Graham is working with clients involved in opening up the stratosphere to aircraft that would act as cellular relays and internet hubs. She spoke with me on the phone from her home office.


Industry partnership with ICAO

Where there’s some more progress needed is in collaboration with the industry, and that is a function mostly of the way the organization was structured. It is, today, funded exclusively by the [international] states themselves, and the U.S. hasn’t been all that friendly toward U.N. agencies of late. If you think about how aviation has evolved, it was never set up as a public/private partnership. Today, the relationship of the industry is on an “observer” basis. They can come to the same meetings, but they don’t get to play. Can they speak? Yes, but in a very structured, formal way. The organization has to find a way to both finance itself, for the future, and to open the doors to industry.

Enforcement teeth

ICAO audits the [member] states themselves, both in safety and security, on how well they’re complying with the standards. So, compliance of standards doesn’t necessarily equal safety. That program has been strengthened, both from the safety side, and on the security side. In years past, those were not transparent results. There’s much more transparency not only to the public, but to the aviation community as a whole. States have begun to take action against states that have very, very poor audit records.

Google Loon hurricane relief

They’ve been flying for about three years now, and their objective is to have these floating cell towers in the sky. Facebook has a program very similar called Aquila. It’s the big airplane that’s sort of geostationary as well. There’s a project that Airbus has and there are others. The point of all of them is to put infrastructure in the sky that supports the internet [in] places that don’t have it. In the spring, for example, Loon was testing over Peru and they had a horrible, horrible [storm] there. Loon began to provide services on a test basis because they were there testing anyways, to Peru. They now have a number of balloons over Puerto Rico and have been providing service in Puerto Rico.

Opening the stratosphere

There’s a tremendous amount of money that’s headed into the upper airspace from an industry point of view and regulators just now need to catch up. We don’t necessarily need to manage it in the same way as we manage regulated airspace, because everything up there can be equipped to be relatively, nearly autonomous and that’s a very controversial discussion right now. There’s lots to learn from the small-drone arena that we can apply to upper airspace. In the small-drone world, there are a number of companies that are trialing right now how to have remotely piloted drones essentially work in and around each other. If you think about it, upper airspace is a much easier testing ground, it’s much less dense traffic.

Fresh interest in supersonic planes

There was no push for ICAO to do anything in the supersonic arena [during my term that ended in 2015]. That’s how quickly this system changed. Now, in one way I could tell you that that’s a bit how detached ICAO might be in a sense, but I also think there just recently has been, like in the last three or four years, an infusion of cash in that arena from private sources. That’s the difference. If you look back to the beautiful Concorde, that was predominantly sponsored by the states.

Switching from black boxes to streaming flight surveillance

There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have that now. The technology is available. The challenge is when do you do that? When do you retrofit? When do you make those transitions? And this upcoming year, in 2018, there’s something called the Air Navigation Conference. It provides the opportunity to rethink, for those transition points, in something called the aviation system block upgrades. Tracking is a compliance requirement now [for ICAO]. How you do it is up to the airlines, or the service providers themselves, as long as they can meet that standard.

2020 deadline for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast

Some parts of the aviation industry, they’re struggling, as is always the case when there’s any requirement that’s put in place. But there was certainly years of notice for this. It’s not a surprise to anybody, and it’s for the greater good for those operating. The FAA, I think, stands by their rule, and has absolutely no change in mind. It is what we need to have in the system to make it safe. It’s the cost of doing business.

FAA corporatization, not privatization

I don’t use the word privatization, because it has lots of implications, and I don’t think it’s what the FAA has in mind, or even what Congress has in mind. I would use the word corporation, which is still wholly owned by the government, but operates more like a business. I do think that it’s important for the FAA to corporatize. They get a lot of “help” from down the street, and that’s not helpful. They need to operate like a business without political interference.

Advocating for better air navigation