Boeing Frontiers
July 2003
Volume 02, Issue 03
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Commercial Airplanes

Copious collaborators

Boeing's role in the air-transportation system has many complexities


plane taking offAround 1930 in Paris, the French coined a phrase: The layman flies; the expert takes the train. To modern-day ears, the phrase sounds silly, even preposterous.

But at that time in aviation history, many uncertainties surrounded air transportation. Traveling by airplane was often impractical, unreliable, uncomfortable and a lot riskier than it is today.

Yet as early as World War I, some visionaries realized that the emerging air-transportation industry would someday stretch its wings far beyond the boundaries of any one country and become as global as ship transportation.

Today, traveling by air represents efficiency, sophistication and environmental soundness. The air-transportation system now spans the world and operates around the clock—in every time zone and in nearly every latitude and longitude of the globe.

In its entirety, the system includes more than 800 airlines, 1,350 major airports, 150,000 flight crews, 200 languages, 200 countries, 16,000 airplanes and 240,000 maintenance personnel.

Boeing is a major contributor to the system.

"As the worldwide leader in airplane manufacturing, Boeing's role in the air-transportation system has many complexions," said Gerald Mack, government and industry technical liaison at Boeing Commercial Airplanes. "We're all about working together within the industry to create a safe and efficient system for air travelers and shippers."

A worldwide affair

On an international level, several organizations played key roles in forging air services into a global system.

One such agency is the International Civil Aviation Organization, headquartered in Montreal, Canada. The foremost responsibility of this organization is to establish international standards, recommended practices and procedures that define and rationalize the technical aspects of aviation. These include aeronautical rules of the air; charting standards; universal units of measurement; and guidelines for airworthiness, personnel licensing, air traffic services, safety and security.

"In terms of global representation and collaboration, ICAO is the United Nations of the worldwide aviation industry," Mack said. "ICAO sets international aviation standards that Boeing implements throughout the design and production process."

Another influential association is the International Air Transport Association, the trade association of the world's international airlines. IATA represents the airlines on issues that can affect their ability to move passengers and freight safely, efficiently and cost-effectively around the world. Recognizing the importance of creating a common industry view on aviation issues, Boeing actively participates in IATA conferences and related activities.

Similar to IATA, the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations represents more than 100,000 pilots in more than 90 member associations around the world. This association gives pilots a collective voice on safety and labor issues.

In most countries, governments have an overarching responsibility for their respective air transportation systems. They establish air routes; develop air navigation systems; license airlines, pilots and mechanics; and investigate accidents.

Governments are also responsible for keeping airplanes safely separated—in the air and on the ground—through air traffic control services. The construction and operation of major airports is another typical governmental function, generally performed at the local level.

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration performs most of these functions, with the notable exception of accident investigations, which are the responsibility of the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency. The FAA also writes and enforces all the standards for airplanes manufactured or operated in the United States and states these standards in Federal Air Regulations. Manufacturers must certify every new airplane design, production process, and individual airplane coming off a line to the FAA's safety standards as it spells them out in the Federal Air Regulations.

People around the world recognize both the FAA and the NTSB for their aviation expertise, and many foreign governments follow their lead on aviation matters.

The Air Transportation Association of America, another industry group like IATA, represents the major U.S. airlines on aviation issues before Congress, federal agencies, state legislatures and other governmental bodies.

"Boeing works closely—side by side in most cases—with these regulatory and industry agencies," Mack said. "It's a closed-loop system in that we never stop increasing standards and making environmental improvements."

European countries have their own aviation regulatory authorities, plus a representative on a pan-European aviation organization called the Joint Aviation Authorities. Asian countries are individually responsible for their own regulatory policies.

Some governments—notably those of Canada, New Zealand and Great Britain—delegate ATC responsibilities to private entities. Others combine regulatory, ATC and accident investigation functions in a single national agency. In some cases, the country's air force handles accident investigations.

Getting from here to there

Getting an airplane from point A to point B involves extensive land-to-air communications and coordination.

"There are many challenges associated with maximizing the efficiency and safety of airplanes in the global air traffic system," said Chet Ekstrand, vice president, regulatory affairs, at Boeing Commercial Airplanes. "By working together with air traffic service providers and their regulatory agencies, we assure our products are capable of being efficiently and safely integrated into the system. Our goal is a safe and efficient global air transportation system."

Commercial airplanes moving over most land masses around the world are under positive air traffic control, meaning they are under continuous surveillance, and their flight crews cannot change heading or altitude without clearance from a controller.

For example, the United States is divided into 21 sectors of air space, each with its own center. As airplanes move across sectors, they are "handed off" from one controller to another. Over the oceans and other areas without radar coverage, pilots periodically report their positions to distant controllers via radio. To ensure safety in these environments, airplanes are spaced farther apart when they enter these areas than they would be in a radar-covered environment.

Before leaving an airport gate, flight crews must file a flight plan. The plan must include the destination airport, the route the crew intends to follow, the amount of fuel on board, and alternate airports the crew could use in the event of an emergency or a problem at the intended destination. Depending upon weather and traffic conditions, ATC may accept a flight plan as submitted or it may give a crew new routing instructions before or during a flight.

There are several kinds of controllers and ATC facilities, each with a slightly different function during the various stages of flight. In the beginning stages of flight, controllers working in airport towers—a familiar sight to most travelers—monitor and direct airplanes while they taxi to and from gates and during takeoffs and landings.

Controllers in regional radar facilities monitor and direct traffic during the climbing phase of flight—that is, right after they take off—as well as during descents for landing. There are fewer of these facilities than towers because many of them handle traffic moving to and from several airports.

A third group of controllers work in "en route centers" and take over from the regional radar teams. This group of controllers monitors and directs traffic during the cruise phase of flight.

Airline and ATC operations currently rely heavily on ground-based technologies, such as radar and transponders for surveillance, radios and telephones for communication, and radio signal transmitters for navigation and landing. Future systems are likely to use satellites to accomplish these same tasks more efficiently, affordably and safely.

"While much of the existing ground infrastructure will continue to play a role in the future, it's clear that satellites can greatly enhance communications, navigation and surveillance on a global basis," said John Hayhurst, president of Boeing Air Traffic Management.

The worldwide aviation system exists to transport people and products expeditiously and safely. It is intricately designed, meticulously maintained and precisely manipulated.

Commercial Airplanes President and CEO Alan Mulally once compared the evolution and "taking off" of flight concepts during the early 1900s to the information explosion of the Internet.

This "internet of the sky," as Mulally refers to it, will continue to expand and offer new and better ways to transport freight, people and ideas around the world in support of the global economy and a better way of life for all of us.


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