Aviation industry vital to U.S. economy
by Lawrence Garrett, AIAA Web Editor, posted 17 June 2014, 8:30 a.m. EDT
The importance of the aviation industry, not only to the state of Georgia but also to the U.S. economy, was the focus of a Monday morning panel discussion at AIAA’s AVIATION Forum, taking place this week in Atlanta, Ga. The panel, called “Aviation’s Challenges & Opportunities – Georgia’s Global Perspectives,” included three industry representatives: moderator Steven Justice, director, Georgia Center of Innovation for Aerospace; Jack Crisler, vice president – new business, air mobility, special operations, and maritime requirements, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics; and Steve Dickson, senior vice president, flight operations, Delta Air Lines. The panel looked at aviation from two perspectives, operational and manufacturing.
“Our goal is to work with companies within the state to give them access to industry expertise, university research, potential business collaborators, a qualified workforce and current industry information,” said Justice in his introductory remarks, citing Georgia’s “very long history in aviation and aerospace.” He touched on some of that history, including the flight of then-19-year-old Ben Epps in October 1907 – in an airplane of his own design and fabrication – less than four years after the Wright brothers’ historic first flight. “Epps Aviation still exists today and is one of our leading aviation companies in the state of Georgia,” said Justice.
Describing two of the seminal events that helped shape Georgia’s aerospace industry in the 20th century, Justice cited the 1941 move of Delta Air Service, later re-named Delta Air Lines, from Louisiana to Atlanta. This “solidified Atlanta as the aviation hub for the southeast,” he said. When Delta became one of the first carriers to adopt jet aircraft into the national airspace in the 1960s, Atlanta built one of the first new terminals tailored to these planes. As a result, Delta and Atlanta continued to grow, eventually becoming the “busiest passenger airport in the world, and the busiest airline hub.”
The other event that helped shape aviation in Georgia, said Justice, was the building of Air Force Plant No. 6 in Marietta in the 1940s. It became the first major aircraft production facility in the deep south. In 1951 Lockheed took over the plant from Bell Aircraft to refurbish B-29s for the Korean War. Eventually Lockheed began building its own designs, which would include the C-130, C-141, C-5 Galaxy, Jetstar Business Jet, P-3s, and F-22 Raptor, to name a few. Today Georgia has over 700 companies involved in aerospace and aviation, and aerospace products are the state’s largest international export.
Panelist Steve Dickson, senior vice president, flight operations, at Delta Air Lines, discussed the implementation of NextGen, the Next-Generation Air Transportation System. Dickson also co-chairs the NextGen Advisory Working Subcommittee, which works closely with the FAA. He said that while the current air traffic control system in the U.S. “is the finest system in the world,” it is nonetheless a legacy system based on a paradigm dating back to the 1950s. In today’s transition phase, he said, the system is being transformed to “take advantage of technologies that allow us to share information, make smarter decisions in real time, and control aircraft from gate-to-gate – and even before the flight departs the gate – by exchanging data and making informed decisions between the operators and the FAA.”
Dickson called the transition a “huge undertaking,” much more than simply the implementation of a series of improved tools One of those tools is data communications – an airline’s version of text messaging. The technology is being implemented now, he said, and should improve the efficiency of operations over time. “The introduction of GPS for more precise navigation and surveillance is a big part of NextGen as well,” added Dickson.
One of the big challenges is how those tools are used, and how they should be implemented “on top of a legacy system that needs to continue to operate safely and…serve the traveling public efficiently.“ This will require a “tremendous amount of change-management within very large organizations.” It will mean changes in regulations and in procedures that controllers and pilots have been using; in many cases it will cause a paradigm shift that will “change the way we’ve operated for decades,” he said.
The past four or five years, said Dickson, have shown that despite the numerous challenges, it will be “very important to stay the course on implementation.”
Lockheed’s Jack Crisler provided an industry perspective on business aviation. At the company’s Georgia plant, more than 6,000 employees contribute “about a billion dollars annually to the local economy,” said Crisler.
Affordability, he said, is one of the company’s primary concerns, adding that their customers have a similar focus. He said Lockheed is attempting to align their discretionary budgets with their customers’ roadmaps, and that in an era of flat or declining budgets they have to be a lot more prudent about where they invest their money. He said this creates efficiency, which is now a necessity.
Lockheed is looking at how it is running its budgetary process. “I don’t think continuing resolution after continuing resolution is the way to gain efficiency,” he said, referring to the short-term funding measure Congress often passes in lieu of a budget. The practice doesn’t just limit the company’s ability to manage its “planning horizon;” it feeds all the way down the supply chain ¬ and many companies don’t have the resources or capital to handle the resulting delays and uncertainty, he said.
Crisler also touched on ITAR, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, saying it might be time to question the wisdom of some of its restrictions.
One attendee asked the panelists, “When you’re dealing with tighter and tighter budgets, and increased competition, what things do you put at the bottom of the list and what things do you make a priority?” Crisler answered, “The days of a good idea that’s not performing well are probably over.” Such programs “are probably going to get cancelled…So the focus has to be on performing [well] on the programs you have, and meeting your commitments to either your contractor or your customer.”
AIAA Executive Director Sandy Magnus, a member of the audience, noted that concern is growing over the loss of the nation’s workforce experience base, due in large part to the extreme length of today’s design process and program cycles. She asked Crisler what Lockheed is doing to preserve some of that corporate knowledge.
Crisler offered “a real-world example” of something he’s been advocating, the C-5M aircraft program, and the employees who are “working on that project in a level of detail that we never expected.” He said Lockheed is generating a lot of expertise on this small fleet – “a national asset” he called it – which will begin winding down in 2016. When it ends, ownership of the program will go to the Air Force Materiel Command’s Warner Robins Air Logistics Center – and as Crisler asserted, “We’ve got to figure out how to transition some of that knowledge that’s been generated in the process. Otherwise it’s an investment that’s been wasted.”
Another attendee asked the panel to comment on how companies “compete against each other” while also collaborating. “How do you, Delta and Lockheed juggle that?”
Dickson said that when it comes to aviation safety, “there is no competitive aspect to that in my view.” He added, “there are a number of ways that not only the carriers, but the FAA and other federal agencies, other operators and other manufacturers collaborate.”
When asked for a final comment, Dickson was emphatic about the importance of STEM education – science, technology, engineering and math – for the nation’s youth. “The airlines and our larger defense manufacturers...are faced with some of the same demographic issues, whether it’s pilots and engineers, maintenance technicians, [or] analysts. We really need to…make sure that our base doesn’t erode. In the case of pilots, we’re certainly not seeing a shortage at Delta Airlines, but the industry is changing.” He said “forums like this” provide an opportunity to encourage young people to enter technical disciplines, and to persuade them that “this is a great industry to be in.” Dickson added, “The viability and the vitality of the airline industry is a key national resource.”
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