Aircraft Technology, Integration and Operations

Covid-19 pandemic hits air transportation hard

The Air Transportation Systems Technical Committee fosters improvements to air transportation systems and studies the impacts of new aerospace technologies.

The International Air Transport Association projected in April that three months of severe travel restrictions due to the covid-19 pandemic could result in a loss of 25 million jobs related directly or indirectly to aviation. In June, IATA projected unprecedented near-term economic impacts on airlines, with revenue losses of $419 billion and a net loss of $84 billion for 2020. By comparison, global airline industry profits were $27 billion in 2018 and $26 billion in 2019. Through July, passenger traffic had declined by about 60%, and air cargo had declined by about 14% compared with 2019. Following the collapse of air transportation demand in March, airlines canceled or postponed delivery of new aircraft. IATA reported in August that the number of new aircraft deliveries for 2020 plunged by almost 60%. Alexandre de Juniac, IATA director general, predicted in September that global passenger traffic would not return to pre-pandemic levels until late 2023 or early 2024.

Unrelated to the pandemic, in November the FAA and other regulators took steps toward permitting the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft to fly again. Approximately 385 in-service aircraft remained idle, with another 450 undelivered aircraft in storage at Boeing. In November, FAA released its airworthiness directive for the aircraft, which addressed the control laws of the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, and the associated flight deck display system, implicated in two deadly crashes. Safety regulators also identified an additional design flaw involving noncompliant horizontal stabilizer trim wiring that must be addressed. FAA determined that a short circuit of this wiring could potentially lead to uncommanded stabilizer movement.

The covid-19 pandemic had a profound and detrimental impact on air traffic management modernization initiatives in the United States, as FAA prioritized protecting the workforce from infection to sustain facility operations. The agency halted further implementation of its en route digital air-to-ground communications system, DataComm, following the pandemic lockdown in March, although three facilities (Kansas City, Indianapolis and Washington) were brought online in 2019. FAA also indefinitely postponed deployment of its Terminal Flight Data Manager program in March. The program will replace antiquated paper flight strips with modern touchscreens at 89 airport control towers, with surface metering functionality at 27 of these. The two programs are important pieces of the NextGen modernization initiative and are key to achieving the anticipated efficiency benefits of trajectory-based operations.

Beyond traditional ATM, significant progress was made toward the safe and secure integration of small unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system. In addition to releasing Version 2.0 of the UAS Traffic Management Concept of Operations in March, FAA collaborated with NASA and industry toward establishing a key technology: Remote ID, the ability of UAS in flight to provide identification and location information that can be received by other parties, particularly FAA, law enforcement and federal security agencies. In May, FAA announced the selection of eight companies to help develop technology requirements for Remote ID: Airbus, AirMap, Amazon, Intel, OneSky, Skyward, T-Mobile and Wing.

In addition to UAS, the FAA started work on integrating advanced air mobility vehicles, such as two- to six-passenger electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, into the national airspace system. In June, FAA released Version 1.0 of the UAM ConOps, which incorporates ideas from NASA and the nascent advanced air mobility industry. The document describes the envisioned operational environment for UAM flights into, out of and within urban areas. The UAM ConOps will be updated to incorporate research findings and ongoing discussions with industry.

Covid-19 pandemic hits air transportation hard