August 2012

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Commentary: Airport infrastructure must keep pace with aircraft demand

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In the last two weeks, the world has seen air major accidents in North Africa and South Asia involving brand new airframes from both Boeing and Airbus. While the final verdict on the probable causes of these accidents are months, if not years away, the close proximity of both tragedies, prompts a distinct train of thought.
Afriqiyah Airways Flight 771, an Airbus A330-200 built in late 2009, crashed on approach to Tripoli following a flight from Johannesburg, killing all but one of the 104 passengers on 12 May. Ten days later on May 22, Air India Express Flight 812, a Boeing 737-800 delivered in 2008, overran a runway in Mangalore after a flight from Dubai, killing 158 of 166 on board.

While very different airlines, with very different fleets, in very different regions, these two accidents have an important link tied to each region's common aviation future.
Boeing and Airbus estimate Africa will require 620-929 new aircraft over the next 20 years, a more than doubling the current continental fleet of 660, while India will require 1,032-1,093 aircraft, with the Indian passenger fleet growing four-fold.
Grouping an entire continent such as Africa is a common fallacy, pockets of well developed airlines and airports have expanded safety in important ways over the last half century. The same goes for India where highly developed airports in Mumbai and Delhi account for half of the air traffic in South Asia.
Staggering economic growth, which will outpace mature markets in the US and Europe will drive unprecedented demand for new aircraft and new routes to airports that had limited or no previous commercial service whatsoever.
While technology in the aircraft is further enhancing safety, such as runway overrun protection and precision navigation capability, technology on the ground has to keep pace. In developed regions, approach radar aids a pilot on descent to the runway threshold, analyzing the aircraft's position in relation to the instrument landing system.
Additionally, the EMAS, or Engineered Materials Arresting System, has proven itself to be far superior than other types of runway arresting measures such as sand bed, like that available in Mangalore.
Though as the massive influx of new aircraft continues over the next two decades into the emerging markets, aircraft large and small will continue to put strain on an limited and often outdated airport infrastructure.
Flight 771 is believed to have been flying a non-precision NDB approach into the rising morning sun at the end of Runway 9 when it crashed, while early reports indicate Flight 812 approached high on the glideslope to Mangalore, resulting in a long touchdown by the 737.

Just as the airframers manage the unprecedented demand from these regions, particular focus needs to be paid by governments, international regulatory authorities and airframers, on both sides of the aircraft/airport equation.
The introduction of high technology cannot be limited to flying hardware. Unprecedented growth cannot be successfully accomplished without expansion of not only pavement and terminals, but the modern safety technologies that make emerging markets into developed markets.

Photos Credit Rick Schlamp & Christophe Ramos

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