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Flying smarter

July 2012

Increasingly congested airspace and airports in the Gulf, coupled with high fuel costs, are driving investments in technology which streamline the whole flying experience, according to aviation technology provider Honeywell Aerospace

The Gulf’s busy airports may be many things to the weary passengers who pass through them, but ‘intelligent’ is most probably not one of them.

But ‘intelligence’ is exactly what US-based technology provider Honeywell Aerospace - part of Fortune 100 giant Honeywell - claims it is providing to airport infrastructure in this region to improve the passenger experience and streamline operations. And with forecasts of strong growth in passenger numbers over the next few years, the Gulf is very much on the long-term business radar, says Brian Davis, a vice president at Honeywell Aerospace Air Transport and Regional Division.

“An intelligent airport uses a range of advanced technologies from the terminal all the way to the aircraft, working together to reduce congestion, lower costs, maximise environmental efficiency and most importantly, improve capacity while ensuring safety,” he tells The Gulf.

Globally, the number of aircraft is expected to double over the next 20 years. Meanwhile, according to the latest statistics from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Middle Eastern carriers saw their passenger traffic increase by 18.6 per cent in the first four months of this year alone, compared with the same period of 2011, despite the ongoing economic turbulence. With Gulf populations growing rapidly generating further organic growth in demand for aviation services, bottlenecks are inevitable.

In response, Gulf airports are investing to boost capacity, often in tandem with the massive fleet expansion programmes of the airlines which call them home.

However, creating more capacity in the air is trickier.

“Airline, airport and passenger numbers continue to rise, but around 80 per cent of Middle Eastern airspace remains restricted for military use. Commercial air corridors are becoming busier by the day,” Davis observes.

Honeywell Aerospace claims its air traffic management (ATM) technologies – currently being used, says Davis, by “all key airlines and business operators” in the region, including Emirates, flydubai, Etihad, Qatar Airways and Dubai International Airport, in addition to private aviation companies ExecuJet and Jet Aviation – have had a significant impact on improving the overall flight experience for air travellers.

Among the ATM technologies currently being used in the Gulf is a Traffic Collision Alerting System (TCAS), which improves a crew’s ability to see other traffic; a 3D weather radar which helps improve operations in poor visibility; and GBAS, a ground-based augmentation system which reduces holding times for incoming aircraft by avoiding the typical ‘stair-stepping’ landing approach.

At Dubai’s international airport, an “intelligent” security solution comprising access control, alarm monitoring and CCTV surveillance is, Davis claims, helping reduce delays, improving the flow of passengers through security checks and reducing any chance of false alarms. The city’s flag carrier Emirates, meanwhile, uses Honeywell’s ‘Smart Landing/Smart Runway’ system which, Davis explains, “promotes increased situation awareness during the critical landing and takeoff phase, as well as operations on the taxiway environment.”

“Dubai International Airport is a perfect example of a leading worldwide airport enabling increased capacity by selecting thoughtful solutions,” he states.

While improved operational efficiencies and safety are vital objectives for the aviation industry, it is the impact such technologies have on the bottom line which are arguably the most important for airlines stressed by soaring fuel costs. According to Davis the TCAS alone can save an airline more than $100,000 per aircraft every year in reduced fuel consumption.

Meanwhile, on the ground, an “electric green taxiing system” which the Company is developing in partnership with French defence, aerospace equipment and security company Safran, enables aircraft to taxi without using its engines, reducing fuel and other taxi-related costs such as tugging. Currently in use at two European airlines, Honeywell hopes it will prove attractive to other airlines, including those in the Gulf.

While he points out that ATM system installation costs depend on parameters such as the size and throughput of an airport, the type of technologies deployed and the operator, Davis claims returns on investment can be immediate.

“The electric green taxi system will save operators money as soon as it is switched on, because it means the aircraft’s engines are not running, reducing fuel burn by up to four per cent. With just one per cent efficiency gain saving up to 500,000 tonnes of fuel per year, a four per cent reduction in fuel burn can significantly contribute to the bottom line,” he argues.

“With GBAS technology, airports can expect to see a return of up to $400,000 in savings for ongoing maintenance, as one system can provide precision landing for all runways at the airport, compared with current technology that requires a separate system to be installed for every runway end.”

Against this background, Davis is optimistic about Honeywell Aerospace’s prospects in a Gulf region where both short-haul and commuter segments of the market have taken off in much the same way as the established medium- and long-haul markets. Although he harbours concerns about the pace at which ATM systems are certified and the ability of the aviation industry to collaborate to adopt technologies to make flights smarter, faster and more efficient, the overriding sentiment is one of confidence.

Davis also notes that the upgrade of existing airport infrastructure remains a potentially lucrative segment going forward.

“We are seeing particularly significant growth in the aftermarket currently as airlines look to try and extend the efficiency and lifecycle of their existing fleets. For example, airlines can upgrade engines to meet greater fuel efficiency and emissions requirements, upgrade avionics to allow for better flight path management and weather navigation, and can modify cabin configurations to allow for Wi-Fi and other passenger-friendly enhancements.

“The benefit of adding Honeywell technology is that the airlines can do more with what they have and save money at the same time,” he claims.

But although Honeywell Aerospace may have had success selling technology to the Gulf’s airlines and airport operators to date, convincing passengers standing in long security queues or being ferried clumsily by bus from aircraft to terminal of their advantages could be another thing altogether.

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