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Alaska Airlines: Fleet Upgrades and Flight Innovation

Analyzing how one airliner is upgrading its fleet using new automation and flight procedures.

Alaska Airlines signed an agreement with Gogo in August to add the 2Ku satellite internet connectivity service to a growing fleet of 218 Airbus A320s and Boeing 737s. That process will involve the replacement of antennas, along with the installation of new modems, wireless access points (WAPs) and new line replaceable units needed to swap out Gogo’s ATG-4 for 2Ku. This is only one of the new technologies the airline plans to start implementing on its fleet in 2018, as the carrier currently has several unique upgrade and trial activities.

For example, the airline is conducting flight trials to evaluate the use of NASA’s Traffic Aware Strategic Aircrew Requests (TASAR) software. TASAR is designed to allow flight crews to make trajectory change request decisions in en route airspace, using near-real-time weather information, special-use airspace status and traffic conditions.

According to a NASA analysis of 1,600 Alaska Airlines flights, access to this type of dynamic airspace information and alternative trajectories suggested by TASAR could save the company 1 million gallons of fuel and 110,000 minutes of flight time annually.

When upgrading to new technology, Bret Peyton, Alaska Airlines director of fleet technology, said he considers the following three questions: Does your technology increase safety and compliance? Does the technology help our flight operational throughput, reliability, guest experience and on-time arrivals? Does the technology support the future NextGen airspace vision?

“Sometimes you only get one or two of them, and that’s when you have to do more business-case analysis. A good example of safety and compliance is the vertical situational awareness displays featured on our Boeing aircraft,” Peyton said. “We mandate that our pilots look at that in most approach phases of flight — not every airline does that. That display was adopted just for safety and compliance. Not everything hits all three parameters.”

Preparation for the introduction of a new service such as 2Ku at an airline is only seen to the flying public as a new user interface with a noticeably faster connection. The airline’s introduction experience is something entirely different, as it has to transition to the service from an internal organizational perspective to make it operational for passengers and flight crews.

At Alaska, this process is simplified due to something the company’s COO established in 2015: a new division of workers within the Alaska Airlines organizational chart. It is specifically designed to provide IT support to employee mobile devices, which Peyton refers to as “pilot mobile.”

Alaska Airlines signed with Gogo in August to add the 2Ku satellite internet connectivity service to a growing fleet of 218 Airbus A320s and Boeing 737s. Photo courtesy of Gogo

“Over the last year or so we’ve used them as our interface with big IT, the customer facing Alaska Airlines IT. They help us create better processes for things like data storage, parsing data, data analytics, and we’re really excited to have them,” Peyton said. “The broader question is, ‘How do you even set the organization up to handle the introduction of this new technology most efficiently?’ I think we’ve started down a path that this is going to work, to have a sort of ops IT division provided by employee mobile-device experts.”

While passengers in the cabins of Alaska’s 737s and A320s are set to benefit from streaming video and a more seamless web-surfing experience, Alaska Airlines would receive a benefit of its own internally. 2Ku can enhance operations for pilots, maintenance technicians and others connected to the company’s flight operations division.

“Let’s take turbulence [for example]: If I have real-time turbulence information on a connected flight deck, then I have a safer flight environment for the passengers and crew,” Peyton said. “So that’s a really good use case right there.”

Alaska recently trialed the use of different turbulence update EFB software, finding WSI’s Pilot Brief to be the winning application.

“In the very near term, we’re going to start allowing pilots to use only the WSI in flight,” Peyton continued. “They will be restricted from using any connectivity other than a white list of software and websites, and as we roll this out it will be just the WSI application initially. TASAR is another connected one that’s going to come online after we go through the test phase.”

He also noted that its airplane engine monitoring system and flight operational quality assurance (FOQA) can be downloaded over IP. “ACARS has been a very efficient system for us. We leverage ACARS quite a bit, but it’s an old technology, and IP provides a path forward that is more scalable in the future,” he continued.

Enabling Technology and Flight Navigation

Alaska Airlines is the commercial air transportation industry’s first user of performance-based navigation (PBN), having pioneered RNP approach and departure procedures during the early 1990s in Juneau. Today Alaska uses more than 50 different RNP procedures at 19 airports throughout the National Airspace System (NAS). The airline says it is committed to seeking improvements for descent, approach and landing procedures and has served as an example of how to spread PBN throughout the NAS, as the FAA is currently doing with its NextGen program.

Alaska Airlines is evaluating the use of NASA’s Traffic Aware Strategic Aircrew Requests software.Photo courtesy of NASA

Alaska’s 737 fleet is equipped with PBN avionics, which enables it to fly any available PBN procedure, including RNP AR, according to Cody Hargreaves, Alaska Airlines PBN engineer and chief RNP designer. Hargreaves estimates Alaska saves approximately 500,000 gallons per year due to reduced track miles flown and less fuel used through the use of RNP AR and PBN. Alaska’s flight operations team focuses on tailoring approaches to specific terminal areas.

“With so many Alaska Airlines PBN procedures in the NAS today, it’s not just one city or even one region that benefits,” said Hargreaves. “For instance, our newly unveiled RNP procedures in Sun Valley, Idaho, rolled out with immediate success.”

Shortly after RNP procedure commissioning, aircraft within Alaska’s holding company, Alaska Air Group, were the only ones to land in Sun Valley during a snowstorm Dec. 25. He explained the completion percentage there last winter rose from 75% to 94% due to the RNP approach.

There are also fleet considerations to be made, such as how the new Embraer E-175’s introduction to Horizon Air — Alaska’s regional outfit — can integrate with Alaska’s RNP program. The final assessment on the E-175’s RNP capability is due in 2018. All of the new Virgin America A321 aircraft being integrated into Alaska’s fleet are also featuring full PBN and RNP AR capability.

“We are awaiting a decision on the final 737/Airbus fleet plan before we decide how best to handle RNP equipage on the portion of the Airbus fleet that does not currently have RNP AR capability,” Hargreaves said. “We expect to have a clear view on the Airbus fleet plan by early 2018.”

Alaska Airlines is also enabling new flight navigation capabilities through its partnership with NASA. The two are collaborating on the development of the aforementioned route optimization software TASAR, which can help enable real-time route optimization for pilots. The goal for Alaska is to use TASAR to automatically analyze sets of airspace data that can enable real-time routing or altitude changes, caused by changes in wind conditions, traffic patterns, turbulence and more.

“Today we have three aircraft that are committed to being trial aircraft for TASAR to enable this capability. Those aircraft have to have AIDs. To enable that, we have three aircraft equipped with the UTAS AID TIM suite, and that’s going to be interfaced as we start the TASAR evaluation,” Peyton said. “We can use that AID for other things in the future as well. We’re also currently in the process of preparing a request for proposal to go out to a set of AID suppliers to evaluate solutions that can be implemented across our Airbus and Boeing fleets.”

Gogo’s 2Ku allows passengers in cabins of Alaska’s 737s and A320s to stream video and enjoy a more seamless web-surfing experience.Photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines

Boeing is also upgrading Alaska’s 737s with third-generation multi-mode receivers (MMRs) — an upgrade for the 737 that opens up satellite-based augmentation system (SBAS) and ground-based augmentation system capability (GBAS). The FAA describes GBAS as a ground station capable of providing corrections to aircraft in the vicinity of an airport in order to improve the accuracy of, and provide integrity for, the aircrafts’ GPS navigational position. Unlike instrument landing system (ILS) — which requires one frequency per system — a GBAS only requires one VHF assignment for up to 48 individual approach procedures, the agency says. GBAS and SBAS usage worldwide is relatively low, but growing. As a pioneer with RNP approaches, Alaska could quickly become a leading user of GBAS and SBAS.

“Based on the information we’re getting, availability for more GBAS will be expanding in mid-to-late 2018, and we’re very interested in the use of GBAS,” Peyton said. “SBAS WAAS is something we’re very interested in as well because that has some real potential, and we’re building a foundation for what we may be able to do in the future right now.” AVS