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Bigger, Greener and More Intelligent Air Travel

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How Can New Risks Be Measured and Mitigated as Global Air Travel Evolves?

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Empty Coffers and the Capacity Crunch

In April 2013, the Skytrax survey of 12 million airline passengers confirmed that 12 of the best 25 airports worldwide are already in Asia, and these regions will increasingly draw international patronage away from established European hubs. Why?

After over a decade of continual renovation, with another billion-dollar terminal under construction, the Changi Airport in Singapore became the global leader this year, according to the survey. It’s easy to see why.

For starters, unlike in the beleaguered airports throughout Europe and the United States, it is standard policy in the marble-floored, sparkling, glass halls of Changi to operate under capacity. Under capacity? Changi actually builds new terminals to anticipate, rather than respond to, increases in traffic, and Dubai is preparing to field 120 million passengers when its fifth runway is finished.

This is inconceivable in Europe, where, according to a 2011 European Union study, the major airports continually run at maximum capacity. London-Heathrow, for example, accommodates 60 million passengers annually, running non-stop, at full throttle.

There are few plans for development in Europe, because the physical space and funds necessary for expansion are simply out of reach.

On top of capacity issues,  airport crowds are increasingly filled with slower and less agile visitors due to aging — the global trend — and obesity. How does the evacuation scenario look in the case of a fire or other rescue effort? Suboptimal. Evacuation plans have to factor in all of this.

Currently Amsterdam, Munich, Zurich, and London Heathrow are still top-ten airports worldwide, but the Airport Council International (ACI) does not expect Europe to be home to a single top–ten airport by 2030. The US has already fallen off the list; mired in budgetary battles and shackled by an antiquated air-traffic-control regime, it’s not likely to make a speedy comeback.

It’s a vicious circle in Europe. No money, no development; no development, no money. Turf is at a premium, or non-existent, in established European hubs, making it expensive and architecturally challenging to create the shops, restaurants, spas, and other lucrative service centers filling the treasure chests at princely havens like Changi. (If the massage didn’t take the edge off, Sir, why not enjoy a stroll through our orchid and koi-pond garden, or our butterfly sanctuary?)

Asian and Gulf governments understand the airport lure; they realize that the most essential aspect of modern “mobility” is still air travel. So they will continue to pursue aggressive airport growth through robust injections of public subsidy – in fact, the Dubai government owns its major airports outright.

No wonder, international flights from the Americas to Asia and Africa are gradually bypassing the traditional European stopovers in favor of these more accommodating, affluent, and modern airports. It’s a valuable lesson in how quickly investment and determination can catapult a group from the back of the line to the front.

Guard Your Own Little Territory or Join the Global Security Front?

While international business ensures that the US will continue to serve as an air travel destination, regardless of how pleasant or safe its airports are, ACI says that Europe will continue to lose the war of attrition without substantial air investment, further liberalization of the regulatory field, and information sharing.

Within the EU, and certainly between the US, the EU, and others, critical passenger intelligence, such as documented, suspicious activities, is often withheld by state authorities at country borders. In addition to prioritizing airport investment, Asian and Gulf countries also seem to be more forward-thinking here, braving up to the challenges of international cooperation in order to smooth the regulatory path and facilitate the flow of intelligence across national boundaries.

At least Europe is on the threshold of implementing the EU’s “Single European Sky” (SES). After a four-year “Definition Phase” beginning in 2004, they are now approaching the end of the further five-year “Development Phase”, during which the EU, Eurocontrol, and the aviation industry have each invested nearly USD 1 billion in technology, management structure, and governance models for the deployment phase.

The 2014 SES will “defragment” the European flight region, creating nine “airspace blocks” delineated according to real flight patterns, rather than along national lines. A central authority will supervise routing throughout the SES.

The EU says the SES should usher in an era of three times the air-traffic capacity, a ten-fold safety improvement, a 10% decrease in environmental impact, and a massive 50% reduction in air-traffic management costs

USD 3 billion for the SES sounds like a hefty sum, unless you consider that it’s for 28 EU member countries, while the Changi Airport funnels USD 1 billion into a single terminal.

ACI also warns that all this will happen in the clouds, leaving European airport ground operations still inadequate to match the purported 300% improvement in air traffic flow.

Vital Collaboration: Humans and Technology

Where in the world do you find the best airport security? The top five secure airports are Asian, led by the Narita International Airport in Tokyo. Adding to aggressive growth and legislation initiatives, ACI says that Asian and Gulf governments are investing heavily in state-of-the-art airport security, while European authorities invest practically nothing, and the airports themselves just don’t have the money.

Airports can barely afford to buy sub-grade body scanners, much less fund the R&D necessary to invent superior security technology.

But progress has to start somewhere. By eradicating niggling regulatory differences between countries, the EU hopes to achieve a coherent, international supervisory and technological infrastructure, for seamless, cross-border logistics and intelligence.

ACI urges the EU to think beyond even the Single European Sky, to a more global approach, which would enable a broader defense against worldwide terror networks. ACI advocates an “Open Aviation Area” encompassing Europe, Canada, and the US, and eventually including Russia, India, China, Japan, and Brazil.

Some security experts claim that technology is only a deterrent to amateurs and the mentally deranged, since sophisticated terrorists will quickly analyze new devices and exploit their loopholes. Machines today scan everything from bombs, knives and explosive liquids to human bodies. But even when we can detect the latest, non-metallic bombs, which literally look like underpants we are still only reacting to the most recent criminal maneuvers, not anticipating the next.

All the intelligence experts advise airports to direct substantial funds into human security, including uniformed and undercover agents who compare IDs, tickets, and the people holding them, and then interview suspicious characters and monitor them.

The experts say that for the intelligence to make a difference globally, it has to be shared internationally. This seems like stating the obvious, but the cold-war mentality still blocks more progressive intelligence procedures.

It was a lack of human due diligence at the airport, and the fact that neither the British nor the US authorities felt it necessary to share multiple, glaring alerts on his criminal connections, which allowed the underwear bomber to board a flight on December 24, 2009, and attempt to detonate himself.

On the other hand, the shoe bomber’s explosives in 2001 would have been detected with current technology, which is why we all slide sock-footed through the body scanners now. He might be viewed as an amateur, since he failed to take into account the dampening effects of his foot perspiration, which saved the flight. But he was also affiliated with Al Quaeda.

We prefer technology because it is politically safe – that is, until a human decides to blow the roof off of secret surveillance. But technology is a supplement to, rather than a substitute for, live, human intelligence. What happens when the security scanners malfunction? We need to rely on our brains, excellent security training, and back-up plans, to compensate for the absence of technological support.

The most effective defense against furtive, criminal organizations is to embrace international transparency and collaboration, and pool information for a united front.

Aerodynamic, Better for the Environment, but Not 100% Friendly

Finally, added to security and capacity pressures, as one of the worst carbon offenders, the aviation industry is well aware of the imperative for green solutions. Despite reduction efforts, additional air traffic will cause aviation emissions to reach 1.1 billion tons by 2020, almost twice 2005 levels.

The search is urgent and perpetual for fuel alternatives and enhanced aerodynamic solutions which cut fuel consumption — the lighter the craft, the less fuel required to propel it. Researchers are also exploring alternatives to petroleum-based kerosene fuel, including bio-fuels and hydrogen, which would involve redrafting flight patterns, or redesigning aircrafts substantially.

What do all great improvements carry with them? New risks! Here are a few examples.

Fossil-Fuel Reduction in Action

In a recent airplane design, a mass of heavy hydraulics was replaced by a lightweight electrical system powered by lithium-ion batteries. This comprised a crucial element in the plane’s enhanced propulsion, fuel economy, and operational efficiency. In January of this year, the entire fleet was grounded when the batteries caught fire in a couple of jets. Similar lithium-ion batteries have started fires in electric and hybrid automobiles.

Still, this is a step in the process. Using these batteries helps to preserve fossil-fuels, which are due to disappear within a century without radical energy redirection. While we wait for an even better alternative power source, similar batteries are going to find their way into runway ground transport and airport car lots.

Sometimes these interim improvements can pose new hazards, or, as with some of the proposed replacements for aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), they can prove to be less effective than the old, less environmentally friendly products.

Chemical Alternatives

Car manufacturers have been battling the EU this year, since they banned the sale of cars with the refrigerant Freon (a documented environmental foe), and mandated the use of a new, green refrigerant.

The Daily Mail reported that the German Federal Environmental Agency had backed test results which proved that the new refrigerant was even more dangerous than the agency had long suspected. Crash tests demonstrated the high probability that the refrigerant would explode on impact, subsequently spawning highly toxic fumes. According to the report, automobile manufacturers are researching alternatives to the new refrigerant.

Before another solution is found, our choice lies between a known environmental detriment and a much greener refrigerant, which only poses a dire threat in a rare accident. When every passenger car at the airport contains this new refrigerant, the airport assumes more risk.

The Dynamics and Aerodynamics of Composite Frames

On February 23, 2008, a B-2 bomber crashed at the US Air Force base in Guam. Moisture in a few data sensors caused the system to miscalculate the speed and position of the plane as it took off, and it fell back to the ground.

Of course, nobody can afford to crash an actual airplane in testing, so this was the first real chance to witness the voracious fire of a carbon-composite frame.

According to aerospace consultant Leeham Company, 24,000 gallons of water will extinguish the average metal-frame aircraft fire. But just as the resin-coated layers of the composite frame succumbed one by one to the fire, they could only be cooled one by one. The B-2 burnt through 24,000 gallons, and was only snuffed out with 2,500 gallons of AFFF and 83,000 gallons of water. When the reservoir was depleted firefighters had to drive off-site to fetch water, and the fire regained intensity.

Each burnt composite layer also sent millions of carbon fibers into the air, posing a health and contamination challenge.

The Air Force has designed a new fire truck with substantially increased water pressure to penetrate the composite frame layers, but it is not yet widely installed in civilian rescue and fire-fighting fleets. A new firefighting procedure has also been developed.

There is no turning back: composite frames will become the standard. These light composite frames slash fuel consumption by two thirds, and enable the transport of much larger groups of people, reducing the number of flights. The passenger-to-flight ratio on Airbus 380, for example, reduces carbon emissions from 93 to 30kg per passenger, per flight. All in all they represent tremendous cost savings and a boon to the environment.

When nothing goes wrong, this is inspired progress.

Quantifying Unknown Risk

Our best option is to keep at the R&D, and mitigate risks as we go along. Using environmental and aerodynamic developments as an example, it is only when a rare accident occurs that these otherwise brilliant solutions could endanger life, property, and the environment. To prepare for the worst and aim for the best, we have to explore the risks of green aviation.

Airport hazards pose a threat to life and property, and warrant the most stringent risk analysis.

To be able to measure the risk, we must assign numbers wherever possible. Probabilistic Risk Assessment (PRA) is a heavyweight tool for gauging such unfamiliar and potentially devastating risks.

Businesses use probability and the returns for various outcomes to predict value. PRA just reverses this concept to predict loss. The basic PRA equation is simple: Risk = Probability x Severity.

For example, we multiply the number of battery fires per thousand flights by the severity of impact, using a range of potential impacts from least to greatest. We use an event tree, or a fault tree, to visualize the assorted, potential risk incidents.

Then we refine this, by incorporating the level of risk aversion or tolerance, which weights the calculations of annual expected loss. Finally, expected loss is adjusted according to risk mitigation measures. Does the airport have the new fire truck, a larger reservoir, more fire hydrants, and an expert fire brigade with up-to-the-minute training? Then the annual expected loss will be lower.

Every new element and its risk factors should be assessed before a new airport, terminal, or aircraft is constructed. This gives companies the chance to incorporate effective risk mitigation in the blueprints. Obviously, that’s the time when the most effective solutions can be implemented at the lowest cost.

How is the Outlook?

Asian and the Gulf countries are leading the way, and under a united sky beginning in 2014, European airports should find themselves with less regulatory hassle, and therefore more time, energy, and resources to devote to revenue generation and progress. If the US can get rid of the recent political drag, it will also gain momentum as a major contributor to the global solution. We’ll be on our way to better security, a more balanced global economy, more fluid mobility, and a healthier environment.

Is it possible to prevent every accident as we pass through each phase of development? No, technology fails, humans make mistakes, and we trade one risk for another. So, we share and collaborate, we watch this evolution closely, and we pursue rigorous risk evaluations, to save lives and make every improvement count.

 

John Frank is the Loss Prevention Leader for the XL Gaps Center of Excellence, a fire loss prevention consulting expert in Aerospace, fire protection systems, fire physics and chemistry, foam systems, firefighting, and probabilistic risk assessment.

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