Wednesday, May 14, 2008

China's Jumbo Passenger Aircraft Company

China moved one step closer to manufacturing jumbo aircraft by inaugurating its national pride in commercial aircraft manufacturing, while stressing that the new company will offer no short-term challenge to Boeing or Airbus.

China's new aerospace firm Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China Ltd. (CACC) was formally launched in Shanghai on May 11 2008. The Company is charged with building jumbo-jets that will pose no threat to Airbus and Boeing for 20 years and will require the help of foreign technology. However, Beijing has indicated it could compete with some Boeing and Airbus models by 2020.

A key reason for setting up CACC is the desire to meet China's domestic demand. Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang says the new company must help serve the rapidly expanding home market. While importing technology and cooperating with foreign companies, China must also make its own innovations and have its own intellectual property rights in aircraft building, says Zhang.

The new company has a registered capital of $2.72 billion, with the state-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission being the largest stakeholder. Other stakeholders include Guo Sheng Group representing the local Shanghai government, AVIC 1, AVIC 2, Baosteel Group, Aluminum Corp of China and Sinochem Corp.

Chairman Zhang Qingwei said the company will be responsible for "aircraft research and development, key parts production and final assembly, marketing, customer service, airworthiness certification and financial leasing."

The launch of the CACC has the backing of the top level of government, with Premier Wen Jiabao underscoring the need for China to pursue independent innovation. The new company's capital includes 6 billion yuan from the central-government commission that manages state enterprises.

Premier Wen Jiabao hinted that the industry has no future as an engineers' playground and maintains the new business has to be run as a modern commercial enterprise as well as pursuing high technology. "Innovation cannot exist without the environment and condition of a market-oriented economy," Premier Wen says. "Aviation enterprises should actively take part in market competition and the deepening of structural reform."

CACC general manager Jin Zhuanglong indicated the company doesn't have a development strategy and can't compete with Boeing and Airbus at this time. Jin said the short-term goals of the new venture are to accelerate training of civil aviation professionals and to conclude the ARJ 21's first flight and airworthiness certification process. "As for our long-term goal, we only have one," he said. "That is to guarantee commercial success of our large commercial trunk aircraft."

Jin told the state news agency Xinhua that CACC has adopted an "opening-up" policy with the desire to purchase avionics and engines for its large aircraft from international suppliers. "We welcome our foreign counterparts to participate in the manufacturing process of our large commercial trunk aircraft so as to create a win-win situation," he said.

He conceded that it will be a "long-term process" to develop large commercial aircraft, adding that no timetable has been established for building the first model. He also downplayed the potential challenge CACC will present to established manufacturers. "Even if we make it, our large commercial trunk aircraft won't pose any challenge to Boeing and Airbus, as we [will] only have one single type [initially] while they have multiple types of aircraft."

After getting the ARJ21 into service, CACC will develop an aircraft with more than 150 seats and a take-off mass of more than 220,000 lbs., a specification for an aircraft at least as big as a Boeing 757 or Airbus A310.


Friday, May 9, 2008

Continental Airlines, Boeing and GE Aviation Plan Biofuel Flight

Continental Airlines, Boeing and engine maker GE Aviation have scheduled a biofuel demonstration flight for early 2009 as part of the ongoing effort in the aviation industry to identify sustainable alternative fuels.

The Continental Airlines flight will be Boeing's third joint biofuel demonstration with an airline. Continental Airlines is the first major U.S. airline to make such a move in promoting the use of sustainable biofuels in aviation, an emerging trend gaining momentum as crude oil prices shoot through the roof.

In February 2008, Boeing and Virgin Atlantic Airways flew a 747 from London to Amsterdam with one of its four engines powered by a mix of 80% jet fuel and 20% biofuel based on coconut and babassu oil. Boeing, Air New Zealand and Rolls-Royce plan to conduct another biofuel demonstration flight for the second half of 2008 using an Air New Zealand Boeing 747-400 equipped with Rolls-Royce engines. These tests are part of an industry wide effort to find a biofuel that is environmentally and economically sustainable.

While the Virgin Atlantic Airways flight proved biofuel is a viable alternative fuel for the airline industry, the main focus is on the raw materials that go in to produce these biofuels. Critics maintain using eatable food as source for biofuels will exacerbate global food shortage and serves to raise food prices worldwide. Others oppose to the idea as the common alternative fuels based on corn, soybean and palm oil require enormous amounts of water and land to produce.

While the partners are working to identify sustainable fuel sources that don't impact food crops, water resources or contribute to deforestation, the airline industry is focusing on the second-generation biofuels based on marginal or experimental crops such as algae, switch grass and jatropha.

The airline industry, which accounts for 2% of global carbon emissions, is high on the watch list of environmentalists and regulators concerned about global warming. A viable biofuel would certainly be the Holy Grail of the airline industry, whose carbon footprint is poised to grow as demand for air travel increases. Besides the soaring fuel costs, government-mandated greenhouse-gas emission limits could make flying airplanes more costly. The International Air Transport Association has proposed building a zero-emissions aircraft within 50 years and many experts feel the lofty goal is unattainable. But, with increased use of biofuels in combination of other measures, they feel emissions could be kept in check.

The upcoming Continental Airlines biofuel flight will use a Boeing Next-Generation 737 equipped with CFM International CFM56-7B engines, using a blend of between 20%-50% of a second-generation biofuel in one engine.

The CFM56-7B engine is used exclusively for the Boeing 737-600, 737-700, 737-800 and 737-900. More than 4,000 CFM56-7B engines are in service and more than 500 airlines fly CFM56-7B-powered 737s. Since entering service in the mid-90s, they have accumulated more than 50 million flight hours.

In the months leading up to the flight, Continental Airlines, Boeing and GE Aviation will work with an undisclosed fuel provider to identify sustainable fuel sources which can be produced in sufficient quantities. No details on the fuel are available, but the second-generation fuel, that does not impact food production, will have to be production ready in quantities sufficient to support a pre-flight test schedule and mix seamlessly with kerosene aviation fuel (Jet-A).

Continental is the first major US carrier to engage in such flight testing to highlight technological advancements in sustainable biofuels that can help to reduce carbon emissions. The Company is hoping the upcoming test flight will underscore their “commitment to environmental responsibility”. In the last 10 years, Continental Airlines has reduced greenhouse-gas emissions and fuel consumption by 35% by investing $12 billion in new fuel-efficient aircrafts and streamlining operations.


Thursday, May 8, 2008

Airline Maintenance Outsourcing

As airlines' profits running scarce, the industry pushes to cut cost by outsourcing its aircraft maintenance.

For quite some time, airlines insist on reducing in-house maintenance work, slashing the number of mechanics on its payroll, and sending maintenance tasks to lower-priced contractors in the U.S. and abroad. Outsourcing of aircraft maintenance has surged in recent years, raising concerns about the experience and background of the aircraft mechanics performing routine maintenance on our commercial airline fleets.

Government statistics show two-thirds of all maintenance on U.S. carriers is done by contractors, up from 30 percent in 1997.

Northwest Airlines and Continental Airlines use repair stations in Hong Kong and Singapore. JetBlue Airways, US Airways and America West Airlines have their aircrafts serviced in El Salvador. Labor costs for mechanics are often lower overseas, and hangar space is more readily available. Other carriers send their maintenance work to third parties in the U.S., many located in the South, where labor rates are lower.

As aircraft maintenance becomes a $42 billion-a-year business, countries such as Dubai, China, Korea, and Singapore are making enormous investments to attract airline maintenance contracts.

In light of recent negative publicity about airline safety, new alarms are being raised about U.S. airlines’ growing reliance on foreign repair stations for everything from simple routine maintenance to major overhauls. Trade unions, business-travel groups, and some members of Congress maintain that quality and regulatory oversight suffer when maintenance is sent offshore. Opposition, driven in part by trade union leaders who have seen good-paying maintenance jobs shipped overseas, feels lax oversight of such repair shops is a gaping hole in airline safety and national security.

While repair stations are closely regulated and monitored by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the agency requires airlines to ensure that their contract maintenance and training programs, and the contractors themselves, fully comply with federal regulations. The FAA certifies the foreign repair stations that it monitors through its international field offices in London, Frankfurt, Singapore, New York, Miami, Dallas and San Francisco.

Foreign repair stations are certified annually by the FAA, and a certified repair station may lose its certificate if it fails to comply with federal requirements. In practice, a FAA inspector is not required to give advanced notice prior to an on-site inspection, which also includes reviewing air carrier audits.

Both the air carrier and the FAA inspect work done at repair stations. Airline conducts oversight through its Continuing Analysis and Surveillance System, which requires routine audits of the facilities working on aircrafts in its fleet. FAA inspection requirements are based on risk analysis of results from the previous year’s surveillance. Using risk analysis tools, FAA inspectors identify potential safety hazards, target inspection efforts on areas of greatest risk and develop the following year’s inspection program.

United States has country-to-country Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreements with France, Germany and Ireland. These agreements eliminate duplicate efforts by the FAA and the national aviation authorities, and specify that each authority perform certification and surveillance activities on behalf of the other. Under these agreements, the FAA conducts sample inspections of repair stations located in these countries.

While there's some concerns about the 4,187 domestic maintenance operators, the real problem lies with the 700-plus foreign FAA-certified repair stations. Beyond those, there are other non-certified repair shops that provide airlines with various maintenance services.

Critics maintain airlines are entrusting major maintenance works to offshore repair shops that the FAA doesn't have the resources to monitor effectively.

With fuel costs keep rising, airlines are left with few choices and doing everything possible, including maintenance outsourcing, to stay afloat. Meanwhile, law makers on Capital Hill are not far behind and are busy to introduce aviation regulations, ensuring that the safety of the flying public is addressed adequately and these repair stations are properly regulated and monitored.


Saturday, May 3, 2008

Slow Down to Achieve Fuel Efficiency

With jet fuel skyrocketing, airlines are having a tough time and are trying every trick on the book to stay profitability. Airlines are taking different measures including raising fares, adding fuel surcharges to tickets and charging extra for a second checked bag. In recent weeks, several smaller airlines have filed for bankruptcy protection blaming high fuel cost. Jet fuel cost is also blamed for the sharp quarter losses by some air carriers.

From the beginning of commercial flight, airlines came to know the different steps to optimize fuel consumption. Aviation terms such as optimal altitude, optimal cruise performance, optimal flight path, optimal flight speed, etc. are no stranger to aircraft makers (Boeing and Airbus) and commercial airline pilots alike. For years, aircraft manufacturers test their products for fuel economy. Aircrafts' operating manuals include tables and charts helping pilots to determine the optimal cruise performance based on aircraft's gross weight, flight distance, air speed and cruising altitude. Today, airlines e.g. WestJet Airlines, United Airlines, etc., automate this once manual process with on board navigation and software systems.

In practice, airline pilots may find it difficult to achieve aircraft's optimal flight performance in crowded airspace, where airplanes' air speed, heading, speed restrictions and cruising altitude are orchestrated by air traffic controllers.

Jet engine's fuel efficiency improves as an aircraft travels through thin air mass. When an aircraft flies at high altitude, it has less drag in flight and consumes less fuel. But, trip distance is normally the governing factor in determining the optimal altitude for a specific flight if weather, air traffic and wake turbulence are of no factor in flight.

To be cost effective, airlines go great distance to make every drop of jet fuel counted. Airlines require their pilots to taxi at airport tarmac with only one engine. Airlines keep the external surfaces of their aircrafts clean so as to reduce drag in flight.

As an airplane moves through the air, it generates the hazardous wing tip vortices that trail behind the aircraft. Continental Airlines equips its fleet of Boeing 737, Boeing 757 and regional jets with winglets aimed to break up the harmful wing tip vortices that serve to increase the drag on the airplane and to lower its fuel efficiency at the same time.

Aircraft's fuel consumption is directly proportional to its gross weight. To be fuel efficient, an aircraft carry only the payloads that are necessary for the trip. In the seventies, Eastern Airlines stripped off the paint from the fuselage of its aircrafts to reduce an aircraft's gross weight by 500 pounds. With this in mind, have you ever asked why American Airlines' planes are left unpainted? Today, airlines reduce the weight of their airplanes by using lighter trolleys and cargo containers and by carrying enough water on each flight.

Today, we learned U.S. airlines have ordered their pilots to slow down in order to reduce fuel consumption. Southwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Northwest Airlines claim to have multi-million dollar savings by adding few minutes to each flight. The extra flight time is added to existing flight schedules or absorbed into the extra time already built into schedules for taxiing and traffic delays.

Not every airline slows down to conserve fuel. For one thing, flying below a certain speed can actually increase an aircraft's fuel consumption. Some airlines feel working with aircraft gross weight is a better approach to fuel efficiency.

As explained earlier, optimal fuel efficiency can only be achieved by carefully maneuvering the aircraft's gross weight, flight distance, air speed and cruising altitude.

By slowing down an aircraft alone, airlines can definitely save jet fuel. However, I feel airlines can achieve better results with fuel efficiency if they followed United's lead and invested in on board avionics that have a good handle on all factors (airspeed, cruising altitude, gross weight and distance).


Thursday, May 1, 2008

Turboprops Are Here To Stay

Quietly but surely, the noisy, bumpy, fuel-efficient turboprops are making a comeback as fuel costs climb to record highs and airlines struggle to stay afloat.

With the price of oil reaching $120 a barrel, aviation fuel cost, which now becomes a third of an airline's operating cost, is one expenditure that no airline can ignore.

Until recently, greater passenger comfort was the main focus for many commuter airlines. Turboprops, with loud propeller noise and vibrating passenger cabins, gave way to the quieter faster regional jets. Turboprop market shrank and turboprop manufacturers, Fokker and Saab, had either declared bankruptcy or abandoned production of turboprops altogether.

When propeller driven planes can make short trips with a quarter to a third less fuel than regional jets, airlines that only a short time ago were retiring their turboprop fleets in favor of all-jet fleets are now giving a second thought to the fuel-efficient turboprops.

As a result, there has been a clear reversal of trends in the regional airline business. Aircraft manufacturers Canada’s Bombardier and France’s ATR have increased production to 140 planes in 2008, after making 100 deliveries in 2007. This compares with only 26 deliveries in 2002. In the commuter airliner market, turboprops are outselling equivalent regional jets by a factor of two to one.

With increasing market interest, Bombardier is considering to offer a larger 90-seat Q400, and ATR is contemplating designing a new aircraft model. These new planes, which can fly at higher cruising altitudes, would have advanced noise/vibration suppression systems and offer in-flight comfort levels comparable to regional jets.

So, the turboprops are here to stay for good reasons: high aviation fuel cost and optimized operation efficiency.


Saturday, April 26, 2008

North Atlantic Tracks

North Atlantic Tracks (NAT) are about jet stream, a fast narrow air currents found in the atmosphere about 10 kilometers above the Earth's surface. In northern hemisphere, jet stream travels in a west-to-east direction.

North Atlantic Tracks are heavily-traveled air corridors that stretch from the northeast of North America to western Europe. Unlike stationary land-based airways, the aviation authorities (Shanwick and Gander Oceanic Centers), collectively, relocate these 'tracks' on a daily basis. In so doing, Europe-bound aircrafts traveling on the NAT can save fuel by taking advantage of the strong tail winds generated by the jet stream and westbound traffics can avoid the strong head wind created by the same narrow jet stream. Because strong jet stream causes difference in ground speed, for any given transatlantic city pair, westbound flights usually take longer than their eastbound counterparts.

Aside from supply and demand, airlines' flight schedules are planned around European airports' nighttime closings and landing restrictions. This in turn has an effect on NAT traffic pattern. For NAT, westbound traffic is heaviest during daylight hours and eastbound tracks become crowded during night hours.

There are 5 or 6 tracks in each direction at any given time. Alphabetical letters are used to identify individual tracks, which are kept 60 miles apart from one another. There are approximately eight waypoints in each track.

Each track starts and ends with two named waypoints, linking it to the land-base airways at either side of the Atlantic. Other intermediate waypoints along a track are identified using earth's coordinates (latitude-longitude pairs). All tracks have waypoints along the following longitudes: 50°W, 40°W, 30°W, and 20°W. Pilots are required to project and report their estimated time of arrival (ETA) at the track's entry point as well as the ETA at each waypoint while traveling along these tracks.

For decades, High Frequency-Single Side Band (HF-SSB) has been used exclusively for opened-waters air-to-ground communication. In recent years, satellite-based air-to-ground communication equipment are widely used throughout the airline industry. Today, aircrafts with advanced ACARS and CPDLC equipment conduct air-to-ground communication (position reporting, ATC routing, flight plan, weather information, etc.) through satellite-based digital data links. Although HF-SSB voice channels are still in use, the voice traffic in these channels is significantly less in comparison.

Active NAT is available at Aside from the waypoints of individual active tracks, the webpage has other information such as the list's update time, effective period, flight levels, remarks, etc.

With no radar coverage in the Atlantic, aircraft separation rules are strictly enforced in NAT until aircrafts again come within the range of land-based radars. In general, aircrafts on the same track are kept separated by 10 minutes time interval at same flight level or are kept at 1000 feet vertical distance.

In pre-flight planning, an active transatlantic track is identified for the flight and the selected track then becomes a part of its flight plan to be filed with the aviation authority, e.g. FAA. As a routine precaution, many in-flight emergencies are also considered and contingencies are hashed out before the actual Atlantic crossing.

Pacific Organized Track System (PACOTS) is NAT's counterpart over the northern Pacific. They comprise a set of airways linking Japan, Southeast Asia, Honolulu and the mainland US.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

World's Longest Scheduled Commercial Flight

For decades, multi-segment flights were the norm for those travelers making long distance flights. Due to its location, Anchorage Alaska has been for years the scheduled "technical stop" (refueling stop) for many Asia-North America flights using aircrafts with shorter range capacity.

Long-distance flights are becoming more common in part because aircrafts are capable of flying long-haul trips without refueling. The Official Airline Guide said the number of scheduled long-haul flights has been increasing steadily over the past six years. As these aircrafts can fly nonstop on these long-distance routes, airlines using these long-range aircrafts can put their fleet of aircrafts in better use, eliminate technical stops along the way, save landing fees for refueling airports and fly to their destinations without worrying about landing rights at busy airports or airports in unfriendly countries. Long-distance flights also give airlines a marketing edge. Shorter flight time command higher airfares and business travelers are often in favor of speed and convenience over price.

While the new Boeing 777-200LR is the longest-range passenger aircraft in service, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways and United Arab Emirates use the Airbus A340-500 aircrafts on the world's longest scheduled flights. Singapore Airlines' Newark-Singapore flight (SQ21) is the world's longest scheduled flight, traveling 10,314 miles (16,600 kilometers ) to reach its destination in more than 18.5 hours. In contrast to conventional wisdom, SQ21 flies in easterly direction over the Atlantic Ocean, United Kingdom, Scandinavia, etc. to reach Singapore.

Since more fuel is required for these ultra-long nonstop flights, payload that generates airline revenue in normal situation has to be cut to make room for extra fuel carried on board. In addition, the flight needs to carry extra staff as there is no refueling stop in which to bring aboard fresh crew. To compensate for the loss in airline revenue, passengers are expected to pay more to travel on these flights. With a two-class arrangement, the aircraft is more spacious, less crowded and only carries 151 passengers on board. Singapore Airlines, being one of the top-ranked airlines in the world, makes provisions on its A340-500 for its passengers to stretch out, to walk around or even to socialize over the stand-up bar.