A similar initiative to the air bridge has already been established on the European end. The Topflight program is being led by NATS, under a contract awarded by the Single European Sky ATM Research (Sesar) Joint Undertaking. Its first phase will involve up to 60 demonstration flights to and from London Heathrow over a four-month period. The aim is to optimize many aspects of transatlantic flights, including departures and arrivals.
NATS stresses that while one-off demonstration flights have been conducted under previous programs, this latest effort involves multiple flights—and in its second phase they will occur simultaneously. Boeing, Airbus, British Airways, Nav Canada and others are also involved in Topflight.
Boeing is pushing for the FAA to fund and launch a complementary program of demonstration flights focused on arrivals and departures from U.S. airports. The aim would be to develop concepts, prove they work and assess the benefits, with some elements left in place following the demonstrations.
Europe and the U.S. will have “separate but coordinated projects,” Planzer says. With the two sides concentrating on different aspects of the air bridge, “this will reduce the cost of each doing it independently.”
Planzer says the work could be assigned through the FAA's Systems Engineering 2020 program, and the team would probably be similar to that in the European effort.
However, securing a funding commitment in the U.S. has been the biggest obstacle so far. Meserole says the demonstration project would require “single-digit millions,” but the recent debate over mandatory cuts to the federal budget in the U.S. has complicated even relatively small funding requests.
The FAA is supportive of the air bridge initiative, but was initially targeting 2014 for full funding, Planzer says. However, he stresses the importance of moving in concert with the European project, and says he is confident at least some parts of the U.S. program can begin in 2013. More details on funding and timing are expected to emerge soon.
Meanwhile, separate transatlantic demonstration flight projects are continuing. Nav Canada is leading one such effort, known as Engage. This is primarily aimed at providing fuel savings and emissions reductions on oceanic flights, through the use of progressive altitude and speed changes.
Like Topflight, Engage is funded by a contract awarded through the Sesar Joint Undertaking. Air France-KLM and NATS are part of the Engage consortium. The first phase was completed last year, and the second will involve up to 100 flights with more airlines and ANSPs participating. By proving the safety case during the demonstrations, the Engage partners intend to “embed the procedure . . . for sustained application over the North Atlantic,” says Nav Canada's LaChance.