737 MAX grounding and ADS-B lead eventful year

The Aerospace Traffic Management Integration Committee monitors, evaluates, and seeks to influence the direction of ATM technologies with a focus on efficiency, public safety and national security.

Portions of the FAA were closed in January as a continuation of the government shutdown that began in December 2018. While the loss of those affected FAA services other than air traffic control was temporary, the uncertainty surrounding the events had such a destabilizing effect on staff and aviation stakeholders that Congress enacted a two-year funding appropriation to stabilize operations.

The crash of a Boeing 737 MAX commercial airliner in March, following an earlier 737 MAX crash in October 2018, resulted in the grounding of approximately 400 of the aircraft being flown by airlines around the world. FAA issued an “Emergency Order of Prohibition” applying to Model 737-8 and 737-9 (the 737 MAX) in March. These events precipitated intense scrutiny of the aircraft systems, instructional materials, pilot training and communications among the parties involved, including FAA, Boeing and 737 MAX operators. Perhaps most significantly, critics (e.g., the U.S. Office of Special Counsel) focused attention on the certification methodology and the interaction between the FAA oversight and the manufacturer. The scrutiny continued into the last months of the year with the fleet still grounded.

The mandate of equipping of aircraft with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast Out surveillance by Jan. 1, 2020, resulted in substantial compliance, but about 25,000 of 106,000 General Aviation aircraft were still unequipped at the end of November. Without ADS-B Out, an aircraft would not be able to fly in much of the U.S. airspace at the beginning of 2020. Meanwhile, FAA evaluated two aircraft surveillance technologies that would allow aircraft to safely fly in closer proximity over oceans. Based on its evaluation, FAA committed to using one in the near term and to continue to study another for future use. Specifically, in April, FAA committed to implement by 2022 new international standards that allow reduced distances between aircraft, called minimum separation standards. These reduced distances would be enabled by a surveillance technology known as enhanced ADS-Contract. In contrast, FAA determined that the costs of using space-based ADS-B in U.S. oceanic airspace substantially outweigh the efficiency benefits.

The popularity of small unmanned aerial systems, or drones, for commercial and local government use again challenged air navigation service providers to develop rules and procedures that balance safety against the utility of these myriad applications. With the support of NASA, the FAA is moving forward incrementally to allow drones greater access to U.S. airspace, including flights over people and flights beyond line of sight. Giving credence to the future drone role in package delivery, Amazon Prime Air filed a detailed petition to FAA in July for permission to operate under an air carrier operating certificate while in October, UPS Flight Forward received FAA certification to operate a drone airline. In Europe, Swiss ANSP Skyguide announced in August deployment of the Swiss U-space flight information system for drones.

In September, American Airlines retired its MD-80 aircraft, and Airbus announced that it would stop production of the A380 after meeting current orders to Emirates Airlines through 2021, even while All Nippon Airways was introducing nonstop A380 service from Nikita and Honolulu. Boeing test-flew its autonomous electric passenger air vehicle prototype but it crashed in June in subsequent testing, setting the program back.

Motivated by a presidential mandate to free portions of spectrum for nongovernment use, a cross-agency team of the FAA, the Defense and Homeland Security departments, and NOAA are engaged in the Spectrum Efficient National Surveillance Radar program, which would allow 30 megahertz of frequency spectrum below 3 GHz (1,300 to 1350 MHz) to be released. In August, the FAA updated industry on the program, including consolidation of required service volumes that removed many terminal air traffic control surveillance services from the original program goals.

Contributor: Charles Keegan

737 MAX grounding and ADS-B lead eventful year