Business Aviation Insider

May 22, 2017

Datalink requirements will soon increase for aircraft flying North Atlantic routes.

Flight crews traveling between North America and Europe may have already experienced restricted access to some preferred routes along the North Atlantic Organized Track System (NAT OTS). That will only happen more frequently in the years ahead, unless their aircraft carries the right equipment.

Effective December 2017, aircraft flying between FL350 and FL390 in the newly named “NAT High Level” (formerly known as minimum navigation performance specification, or MNPS) airspace over the North Atlantic must be equipped with controller-pilot data link communications (CPDLC), which enables text-based messaging between air traffic controllers and aircraft. Airplanes flying in this airspace also must have automatic dependent surveillance-contract (ADS-C) capabilities, which enable them to transmit position data from onboard navigation and data link systems. Collectively, these capabilities are known as the Future Air Navigation System standard, or FANS 1/A.

Until recently, aircraft not equipped with FANS 1/A could still operate outside those tracks with few issues. However, crews will increasingly discover that non-FANS tracks are harder to come by, with most disappearing completely on Jan. 30, 2020.

FANS approaching fast

Equip or Take the Long Way Around

FANS 1/A is part of an integrated aeronautical telecommunications network (ATN) that enables controllers to significantly reduce separation within a given sector of airspace, increasing the volume of traffic able to be safely accommodated. Implementation of FANS 1/A is driven by this need across the NAT, a region with often spotty radio coverage and no radar service.

It’s becoming harder to get into the tracks outside the FANS routes, and that will only increase as the FANS airspace expands.

Justin Vena, Avionics Installation Sales Representative, Duncan Aviation

Currently, FANS 1/A is required when operating along certain tracks in the NAT OTS between FL350 and FL390 inclusive. Eventually, aircraft will need FANS equipment to fly in all airspace above FL290, effectively pushing non-FANS traffic above the NAT OTS – beyond the capabilities for some aircraft, especially when operating near gross weight – or to the “Blue Spruce” routes over Greenland and Iceland.

Once that occurs, “FANS equipage will be the difference between flying the most preferred and direct route, and having to go out of your way to divert over Reykjavik,” said Carey Miller, director of corporate programs and business development at Universal Avionics. “That will add time [to a trip], and for many aircraft, an extra fuel stop.”

FANS equipage might then seem to be an obvious choice for operators that frequently traverse the NAT. There are challenges, however, and cost will top that list for many operators.

While specific equipage costs may vary greatly, a basic FANS solution will likely cost a minimum of approximately $200,000, with higher rates for more complicated installations. Operators of aircraft between 10 and 20 years old may find their costs to be markedly lower, however, as these aircraft typically have less-integrated avionics, which enables relatively easy upgrades. Modern glass flight decks, by comparison, may require several component swaps and software revisions to fully support FANS equipment.

The upgrade certainly makes sense for larger, intercontinental business aircraft optimized for travel within the North Atlantic Organized Track System.

Andrew Kiehl, Maintenance Director, Executive Jet Management

“The upgrade certainly makes sense for larger, intercontinental business aircraft optimized for travel within the NAT OTS,” noted Andrew Kiehl, maintenance director for Executive Jet Management. “The operating economics degrade considerably for these aircraft when forced to operate at lower altitudes.”

Availability is another concern. Although FANS solutions are available for a large percentage of business aircraft, a few light business aircraft still lack an easy or cost-effective path to FANS.

Fans Not for All Operators

Justin Vena, an avionics installation sales representative for Duncan Aviation, concedes that the upgrade may not make financial sense for some operators. “It largely comes down to how often you fly to Europe,” he added. “Once or twice a year, it probably doesn’t make sense to spend the money, because you can still take the long way around [outside the NAT OTS.] If you’re flying the tracks at least every quarter, though, the business case becomes a lot more justified.”

Mitch Launius, Region IV (NAT) lead for the NBAA International Operators Committee and an instructor with Air Training International, noted that most of his clientele have either already equipped for FANS, or plan to do so ahead of the final mandate.

“Very few folks are telling us they won’t, and those who do may only go across the Atlantic once or twice a year, if that,” he continued. “I’m very sympathetic to that, too, if they have an older airplane, or just don’t want to spend the money.”

That said, FANS also offers advantages, even for operators not operating in the NAT, with CPDLC DCL (departure clearance) service available at 50 U.S. airports.

“With a FANS-capable data link system, you log on and receive your clearance within seconds, in text form, which saves time and greatly reduces the risk for errors,” Miller explained.

Considerations for Investing in Fans

The price of equipping for FANS is not insignificant, and it’s understandable that some operators may be reluctant to invest the time and capital required to upgrade. The following are among the key considerations with regard to making an investment in the upgrade:

  • Fuel Savings – Operating within the NAT OTS means more direct routing across the North Atlantic and greater operational flexibility to choose flight levels with the most favorable winds – all factors translating directly to lower fuel burn. "The potential fuel savings across multiple OTS crossings would essentially pay for the upgrade," noted Andrew Kiehl, maintenance director for Executive Jet Management.
  • Time – "Crossing the North Atlantic north of the datalink-mandated airspace after December 2017 could add another 1.5 hours to a crossing at Mach 0.8, and possibly longer, especially if you need an extra fuel stop," said Mitch Launius, Region IV (NAT) lead for the NBAA International Operators Committee and an instructor with Air Training International. "How valuable is time to the people in the cabin?"
  • Economics – Justin Vena, an avionics installation sales representative for Duncan Aviation, noted that some customers are already planning alternate ways to travel to Europe instead of upgrading. "While that’s understandable for some infrequent travelers, the aircraft isn’t making money for you when it’s on the ground," he added. "Without FANS, you’ve essentially limited your aircraft to North American operations, and that impacts its appeal significantly."
  • Resale – As time draws nearer to the Jan. 30, 2020 ADS-B equipage mandate, values for non-FANS equipped medium and large-cabin aircraft are expected to take a hit on the resale market. "Even if prices don’t plummet, it’s likely that aircraft without the upgrade will sit on the market longer," said Vena.

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This article originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Business Aviation Insider.

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