In January, passengers aboard Qantas Airways' Airbus A380 flagship, the Nancy-Bird Walton, were taken on a slight detour during their final approach to Sydney. The plane swooped by the funeral of the actual Nancy-Bird Walton, Australia's answer to Amelia Earhart. The plane's sheer size might have shocked her, but she could have taken the stick and landed safely — the technology hasn't changed much since the 1930s.
The pilots decided to honor her passing with an aviation first: turning off their ancient instruments and switching on a GPS-guided, all-digital system. Using satellites to continuously calculate its speed, altitude, and proper approach, the hulking plane nimbly touched down only inches off the centerline, the first GPS-powered landing by an A380. "I've heard other pilots say this is as great a leap forward as the jet engine, which I thought was a bit of an overstatement," says Captain Alex Passerini, who was on the flight deck that day. "But this is certainly more exciting."
As it turns out, putting a GPS receiver on a plane is easy, but correcting for its margin of error — as much as 30 feet for a rapidly descending airliner — isn't. For that, pilots need an assist from the ground. Enter Honeywell Aerospace, an arm of the $37 billion industrial conglomerate, which has supplied Qantas and a growing list of airports and airlines with the only available ground-based augmentation system (GBAS) for GPS-enabled navigation.
GBAS, which Honeywell calls SmartPath, is the first piece in a much vaster plan to overhaul air-traffic control. (To learn how GBAS works, see the next page.) The entire next-generation system, prosaically dubbed NextGen, is 15 years behind schedule, and another 15 years out, with a $15 billion price tag. One expensive long-term alternative is to build more runways: Chicago's O'Hare, for example, will spend $13 billion and 20 years realigning and adding runways to increase the number of takeoffs and landings by 20%. GBAS is ready to produce these kinds of efficiency improvements today — for pennies on the dollar. It's an ideal example of the good that a seemingly insignificant "shovel ready" project can do.
The airlines just might be able to save themselves if GBAS can save them a little time. Aviation consultant Michael Boyd estimates U.S. airlines waste $9 billion a year on delays beyond their control — more than the combined losses of all the world's airlines in 2008. Relieving congestion in the most crowded hubs (35 airports handle 80% of domestic flights) could be all that stands between the airlines and profitability. Not to mention between a safe and pleasant flight and terminal hell. "We're trying to help the airlines fly better and really synchronize their operations into and out of congested airports," says Honeywell Aerospace president and CEO Rob Gillette.
SmartPath awaits imminent certification from the FAA. The stakes for Honeywell are huge. Setting a de facto industry standard, it has a two-year head start on its competitors to switch every large airport in the world over from the current radar-based instrument-landing system (ILS) to its system. It pegs the existing market at 2,178 airports worldwide. (Hundreds more are being built in China and India.) It expects SmartPath to be up and running at 600 airports by 2020 at a base price of $2.5 million apiece, producing $1.5 billion in revenue.
GBAS will ripple through the air-traffic system. "The numbers can get really big really fast," says T.K. Kallenbach, VP of marketing and product management for Honeywell Aerospace. It offers airports and pilots 26 separate approaches, as opposed to the one glide path in use now. Some will allow for fuel-saving continuous descents instead of stair-step approaches; others can keep the noise down by weaving around residential neighborhoods. GBAS will even make a difference on the ground, as taxiing planes can stick close to the end of the runway, saving minutes that compound over the course of a day. Most important, planes can fly closer together in all types of weather, making vastly more efficient use of the sky.
Honeywell and Continental Airlines are testing just how much the system can alleviate delays in the most daunting petri dish: Newark Liberty, the most congested airport in the country for four of the past six years. During rush hour at Newark — say, 6:30 on a Friday night — GBAS might yield at least a 25% improvement. Continental hopes that by landing four additional flights per hour during poor weather, it can slash ground delays in half, reducing the teeth-grinding time spent waiting at the gate by 45 minutes.
"Suddenly Continental no longer has congestion there, or in Houston, or any of its other hubs," Kallenbach says. "It's actually the second-order effects that deliver all of the big savings." Maybe the biggest is the reduction in fuel costs caused by delays (along with a shrinking carbon footprint), because planes will no longer get stuck burning fuel while waiting for clearance to take off and land. "The benefits are there," Gillette says. "People should have been doing this already."
A version of this article appeared in the May 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.