High-tech but obsolete: Air-traffic control starts seeing decades-delayed upgrade 

The high-tech, satellite-linked communication, navigation and surveillance system launched by President Duterte at the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (Caap) compound on Tuesday was conceived way back in 1998, but would not be fully utilized until the end of this year.

Housed in an ultra-modern, MI5-like building that could be accessed only through one of the most highly secured government facilities in the country, the new aviation navigational equipment is currently undergoing a series of tests, necessary to assure the highest safety requirements that would ensure 100-percent accuracy in locating airplanes in flight, and that pilots would not encounter any danger or commit mistakes while using the new communication, navigation system/air-traffic management (CNS/ATM).

Once this is satisfied, the local air-traffic controllers (ATC) would put their imprimatur to officially accept this new-fangled, P10-billion-plus infrastructure, one of the most expensive government undertakings, a ranking official who asked not to be named because he would rather defer to the Caap spokesman, Eric Apolonio, said.

Jargons 

The tests are a veritable menu of radar jargons that would require the savvy sophistication of a James Bond-type agent, MI5’s top detective, at their headquarters’ spy agency in London.

The BusinessMirror was told that the current tests involved “shadowing, ghosting and cut-over,” lengthy and time-consuming checks that take months and maybe years to resolve.

Shadowing or parallel testing has been ongoing since last year, which means that the “old” radar, still currently in use at the Caap compound, continues with its 24/7 operation while the new one is activated, at the same time. There’s a separate set of ATCs located at the spanking new Philippine Air Traffic Management Center constructed at a cost of about P4.8 billion.

Here, the air controllers are glued on the glowing screen following and observing their “targets.” These are airplanes, mountains and other landmarks, and, at the same time, listening to the conversations between pilots and those on the ground.

The new ATCs are never allowed to converse with the pilots.

Synchronicity 

“The purpose is to see to it that what is shown and heard on the old radar are exactly the same visual and aural signals that show up on the new CNS/ATM system. There should never be any ‘anomalies or glitches’ whatsoever between them,” our source explained.

“Ghosting and cut-over,” on the other hand, is when the old radar operation is temporarily transferred to the new one, a kind of transition to familiarize the newest among ATCs, and avoid any mishap during the actual transfer,” the BusinessMirror was told. This is done in the middle of the night when traffic is light.

This reporter was told that this tests would end after five months, or by the end of March, when the ATCs are fully satisfied of the new CNS/ATM performance, and they have no doubt or reservations about its capability under trying circumstances, such as bad weather, thunderstorms power failure and the like.

“For sure, the CNS/ATM would be accepted and fully operational by the end of the year,” the BusinessMirror was told, even as the yen loan from Japan International Cooperation Agency would expire in 2019.

“The system has a two-year warranty, and supported by contractors Sumitomo and Thales,” the source said.

The contract’s closing date is November 21, 2019, or a total of 21 years, by which time the P10-billion-plus “Golden Age of Aviation” project gushed by a Palace factotum, a line which Duterte refused to read and incorporate in his launching speech, may have been rolled out.

Golden age

“This is highfalutin, ‘Golden Age of Aviation,’” the President sneered, referring to the speech, apparently prepared by the Presidential News Desk, and probably even copied from earlier news releases by the Caap.

The project also involves the construction of about 50 related facilities, including a central control tower in Manila and radar sites, and a total of 10 radio stations around the country. These were built and acquired to complement the improved system at a cost of P3.6 billion.

Japan has provided the Philippines with official development assistance (ODA) loan to the tune of ¥22 billion, or P10 billion, to implement the project.

Japan made their CNS/ATM operational in the 1990s; Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong in early-2000; and Burma in 2008.

“The project took 21 years to be completed because the Philippines lacks the 10-percent counterpart fund to the ODA equivalent to P1 billion,” said former Caap Deputy Director General Wilfredo Borja, a 40-year air-traffic control veteran.

He added that over the years, the government was foot-dragging on the viability of the CNS/ATM, deeming it to be “too expensive,” and took several administrations and about half-a-dozen Caap chiefs to complete.

Boost 

This finished infra took a final boost during the administration of former President Benigno S. Aquino III, and eventually ordered to be speeded up and finished under President Duterte.

Borja, during the project’s initial planning and discussion, said he was forced to retire early after getting into an argument with a former official of the now-defunct Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) whom he did not name.

Apparently, Borja impertinently pointed out that since the country is experiencing unprecedented air-traffic congestion at that time, then the scarce resources borrowed from Japan should be spent in more airspace capability, like a new airport, parallel and wider runways and rapid-exit taxiways (RET).

Borja added he opposed the acquisition of the 10 new radars, including the expenditures for associated equipment in the provinces.

During a recent conversation, he said, the government then could have planned for a replacement to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia), which was built in 1983.

However, the Manila International Airport Authority (Miaa) general manager then said probably the DOTC secretary at that time had no choice but to continue the project, because it was already a done deal.

Borja, who is against the project, had to go.

Options 

Ten years ago Sangley Point, Cavite, was already proposed as an alternate to the Naia owing to its proximity to Manila. There is also an existing airport previously used by the United States Navy for its squadron of P-3 Orion submarine hunter. The whole area could be expanded or the nearby Manila Bay could be reclaimed for an entirely new airport complex, like what is being proposed by several consortia today.

With a new airport, there would be two or more runways with built-in RET, wider separation between runways and taxiways to give more clearance to the super-jumbo jets like the A380 and B-747-400 or its extended versions, Borja said

As it is now, although the new system promises, “enhanced air-traffic safety, reduction of delays and improved airport/airspace efficiency,” the Naia could only accept 40 takeoffs and landings due to runway limitations.

Obsolete 

Borja said the CNS/ATM should not be called the “next generation” (NextGen) system because it is “obsolete,” having been conceived in 1983, when the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) established the special committee on the Future Air Navigation System (FANS).

The body was charged with development of the operational concepts for the future of air-traffic management (ATM) and the FANS report was published in 1988, where it laid the basis for the industry’s future strategy for ATM through digital CNS using satellites and data links. The final result was the CNS/ATM or ATM/CNS.

The former air controller said NextGen, developed in 2004, is a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) program developed to reduce air-traffic delays, improve air safety and increase efficiency due to America’s expanding air-traffic volume and the overall need for a more efficient airspace system.

“The FAA claims that by the year 2020, the combined efforts of multiple new NextGen platforms will reduce delays by 38 percent, saving an estimated $24 billion for the US. The system similar to the ADS-B, Performance-Based Navigation and Data Comm are expected to save time and fuel, decrease emissions and improve safety statistics.

“In other words, the new system relies on satellites and the compatible equipment aboard airplanes like area navigation [RNav], and no longer on ground-based navigational aids [NavAid], like VOR, ADB, ILS or radars,” Borja added.

“While many NextGen programs are already being implemented in the US, there is also a global impact from NextGen. In addition to performance-based navigation techniques, the FAA is working with other countries to ensure that the NextGen programs will complement international airspace systems,” according to the web site.

On the other hand, in Europe, the Single European Sky initiative is being developed by Sesar.

“The Single European Sky initiative, like NextGen, is an airspace transformation that seeks to standardize air-traffic management in European countries and beyond. And like NextGen, Sesar is working to incorporate new technology, regulations and air-traffic management techniques to make air travel in Europe more efficient,” the web site added.

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