Many times over the past several years, I have reflected on the subject of change and how to better facilitate the process of change in the course of my work in airspace modernization. It’s a fact that change is a part of life – it is central to the human experience. You would think that we would get enough practice at some point in our lives that we would become more receptive to it. In fact, it has been my observation and personal experience that just the opposite is true. We get comfortable with what’s familiar and often become more resistant to change with age and tenure. We like the status quo and resist changes even when there are obvious and compelling reasons to move in a new direction. How many times have we all heard, or even said ourselves, “Remember the days when…”, or “Those were the good old days…”? The human tendency is to resist change and protect our “turf”. Humans and the organizational institutions we create have adapted clever mechanisms to maintain the status quo and one of our very best staus quo “preservation” mechanisms is to restrict information and minimize visibility to outsiders.
Late in his life, Socrates was placed on trial for heresy. His crime? He had encouraged his students to challenge the accepted beliefs of the time and think for themselves. His response to the court when faced with the choice of execution or change was his famous words, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
I’ve reflected on Socrates’ words many times as I’ve considered how to live my life over the years. In fact, his words were on my mind as I had the opportunity last June to accept an invitation to address the CEOs of the world’s Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) in Bangkok at CANSO’s AGM conference. The leadership of CANSO had asked me to be “provocative” in bringing a message that would challenge ANSPs to think beyond the “status quo”. I was particularly intrigued with this request as the challenges for this industry are so great, and the solutions appear to be quite complex.
ANSPs are responsible for managing airspace operations with air traffic operations management and navigation infrastructure. They are deeply involved in the process of upgrading airspace and face some significant challenges in doing so. Some of these challenges are internal to their organizations. Most are not organized to be fast moving with change -in fact, they are intentionally organized to ensure that any changes are considered with great caution. Most are owned, either in whole or in part, by a state organization that is primarily concerned with safety, reliable service and security. When it comes to necessary changes in arrival and departure patterns, external challenges include significant local and state political elements which make it very difficult to get support for any airspace considerations that are perceived to create “new noise”. At the same time, airlines are feeling pain from increasing and unpredictable fuel costs. They want airspace improvements that reduce costs and allow increased utilization of their new, high performance aircraft, yet they don’t want to see airspace charges or taxes increase.
If things weren’t difficult enough for ANSPs, I introduced a new challenge for them to consider. We see significant changes around us in this age of increasing information, particularly with Internet access and social media. In my current role with GE, I am becoming well acquainted with Twitter, LinkedIn, various industry weblogs and internet websites. The expanding availability of information is amazing and it is having its effect on increasing visibility across every human endeavor. For the most part, though, I would say that this new world of increased access to information has not really intersected the business of airspace management. I predicted for the audience that this was about to change and offered some early examples as precursors of what’s to come. An increasing number of hobbyists, private and commercial entities around the world have installed passive transponder or ADS-B receivers to observe, collect and archive information about aircraft flights. In fact, many of us have smart phone and tablet applications that provide an incredible amount of detail on how aircraft are arriving and departing airports across the globe. This information is only recently available to the public and can only get more and more refined with associated applications for various interests.
I offered the possibility of a future where a constellation of low-earth orbit satellites are equipped with these passive transponder and ADS-B receivers that collect aircraft information over the entire globe and archive the track histories. A global aggregated database of aircraft track histories has great commercial value and will feed an increasingly information-hungry population of global citizens. Certainly this will give greater visibility into our world of airspace operations and provide a means for anyone with interest to measure and analyze the performance of airspace operations anywhere in the world.
I told the CEOs that they should expect more website postings by community citizens and hobbyists who provide increasingly more detailed data and analysis on relative efficiencies at both the aircraft-by-aircraft level and the overall system level. This increased visibility and external analysis will be accompanied by pointed questions like, “Why are there air traffic delays when there are so few aircraft in the air at any given time?”, “Why are these aircraft flying over my house instead of xyz?”, and “Do you realize how much more fuel is being burned and emissions are being generated above what our analysis shows would be possible?”
Since this talk was given last June, Iridium has announced plans to include ADS-B receivers on their next-generation low-earth orbit satellites. There is a very real possibility that in the next decade, real-time aircraft surveillance will be available for the entire globe. Beyond the operational opportunities, there will be the commercial information market opportunity I mentioned previously.
So, what to do?
…..to be continued