A380 Wartung bei der Lufthansa Technik in Frankfurt

Airlines Upgrade Flight Decks, Allowing Higher-Precision Navigation

With the next-generation air traffic management era commencing in North America and Europe in 2020, the airline avionics retrofit market will grow as more legacy aircraft see extended service.

With the next-generation air traffic management era commencing in North America and Europe in 2020, along with such new procedures as required navigation performance (RNP) already being implemented, the airline avionics retrofit market will grow as more legacy aircraft see extended service. 

In fact, that market could reach $4.7 billion worldwide by 2021, according to Glenn McDonald, manager at ICF International. “Between 2016 and 2018, most of the upgrades will be done for [Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B)] compliance—with new flight-management systems [FMS] the major focus—and modern flat-panel displays running a close second,” he says.

According to IFC International research, the Boeing 757, 767, MD-80, MD-90, 737 Classics and older Airbus A320s will be the prime market drivers, with work scope and cost largely dependent on aircraft age. “If built since 2000, it probably has an FMS that can be brought into ADS-B compliance with software and—some minor—hardware changes, for as little as $50,000,” McDonald notes. “For an airliner produced prior to that time, the operator would likely need a complete FMS and display-components replacement, that could reach seven figures.”

Boeing 767 cockipt with a Rockwell Collins Large Format Display SystemIFC’s conclusions are reflected in the business plans of avionics vendors. Shahram Askarpour, president of Innovative Support and Solutions (IS&S), reports that most of the interest involves the 757/767 models and 737 Classics, which he suggests still provide long-term value.

“An avionics refresh will allow those aircraft to have increased safety, adhere to NextGen mandates and provide a high-precision navigation solution,” says Askarpour, pointing out that a steady level of interest is being generated by the sale of legacy airliners to the cargo carrier market whose operators want them to remain serviceable for another 15-20 years.

Askarpour adds that to date, most of the IS&S-supplied retrofits have been replacements for first-generation electronic flight information systems, although “some interest is coming” from operators still using analog flight decks.

Along this line, Robert Kline, airline sales manager for U.S. and Latin America at Universal Avionics Systems, says much of the analog attitude or heading equipment is usually targeted for replacement when obsolescence or reliability issues become too expensive. In contrast, he says, technology advancements tend to drive navigation and datacom replacements. For instance, Kline points to an upgrade of the company’s UniLink Datacom box, announced last spring for regional operator Trans States Airlines’ fleet of 16 Embraer ERJ 145 jets.

“That will allow the ERJ 145’s [Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS)] capability to meet Trans States’ operational requirements more effectively, especially regarding aircraft dispatch and system performance reporting,” says Kline, who estimates a market of 120 ERJ 145s for the same upgrade.

In fact, the 50-seat ERJ 145 is among the potential avionics retrofit market leaders, notes Johann Bordais, vice president for services and support at Embraer Commercial Aviation. The OEM is constantly monitoring market needs to reassess the ERJ 145 “product development road map,” he says.

“Generally, the ERJ 145 avionics package is well-aligned with the industry standard and supported by the avionics vendors, so obsolescence is not an issue currently,” Bordais notes. “However, upgrades related to navigation—specifically, higher-memory-capacity FMS and retrofits for new requirements such as ADS-B are the most common, based on customer demand.”

Airbus A380 cockpit

Statistics compiled by Embraer indicate a sizable avionics upgrade opportunity for the ERJ 145, of which 530 remain in service. About 74% of the fleet is less than 15 years old with fewer than 30,000 cycles, putting the type under half of its structural economic life. That, says Bordais, represents a relevant potential market “for second- hand aircraft that will certainly demand services” over the next 15 years.

Todd Young, vice president and general manager for customer services at Bombardier Commercial Aircraft, says that “a strong desire for avionics upgrades” from Dash 8 and Q100, Q200 and Q300 turboprop operators prompted the OEM’s decision to launch a program to retrofit those aircraft with the Universal FMS UNS 1EW and TCAS 7.1. Young notes that Bombardier is also considering ADS-B and upgraded weather radar.  He attributes much of this interest to the extended service programs (ESP) Bombardier initiated for the Q100 and Q300. “These programs have the potential to add approximately 20 years of service to these aircraft,” says Young.

For some operators, a more immediate need involves the replacement of aging CRT-based cockpit displays, due to obsolescence and reliability problems. This represents a definite avionics retrofit market segment, according to Andrew Hutchinson, president of U.S. operations for Thomas Global Systems in Sydney, Australia. “There are operators who want alternatives to complete glass cockpits on a component-selective basis, since in many cases a total [avionics package] would exceed the residual value of the aircraft,” he says.

In that regard, the avionics OEM has targeted the Saab 340 for its TFD-8601, a four-LCD screen Electronic Flight Instrument System (EFIS) that will replace the twin turboprop’s Rockwell Collins ProLine II displays. Hutchinson says about 300 Saab 340s are in service worldwide.

Developed in cooperation with Sydney-headquartered Regional Air Express (RAX), which operates 55 Saab 340s, the TFD-8601 was certified in Australia last year. For U.S. operators, the company is working with Saab to provide an “airframe manufacturer endorsement,” Hutchinson says, which would make the system available for installation under a Saab service bulletin. Under current planning, the endorsement would be available along with U.S. certification, slated for year-end.

Universal Avionics Systems’ UniLink Datacom box Thomas Global Systems received Australian approval for TFD-8601 retrofits on Falcon 20, Falcon 50 and Hawker 800 business jets in 2015. It is working to bring a four-unit LCD display system to the ATR 42, ATR 72 and Dash 8 families as a replacement for the earlier production models’ Honeywell ED-800 CRT-based displays. “We are also considering an LCD solution for the older Airbus A320s—if those aircraft are going to fly longer than the OEM anticipates,” Hutchinson says.

“As more airlines delay phaseout of their older fleets, due to historically low fuel prices, Lufthansa Technik is actively working to develop affordable retrofit products to enable classic aircraft to operate in modern airspaces, and benefit from advanced capabilities,” says Norbert Sabogal, head of avionics engineering in Hamburg, Germany. Lufthansa Technik (LHT) is focusing on aircraft types that are used by most airlines, available in high numbers on the used market, less than 25 years old, with fewer than 30,000 cycles and have at least another 10 years in service.

While most avionics upgrades are driven by regulatory requirements—such as ADS-B and enhanced vision systems—LHT is also exploring modifications required for future developments in navigation systems such as performance-based navigation. Sabogal also notes that the MRO sees growing demand for cockpit upgrades related to electronic flight bag (EFB) installations and modifications.

“The EFB installations being requested include connectivity to an airline’s ground infrastructure for
real-time operational and weather information updates,” he says. “We recently certified an EFB solution for the Airbus A320 and are focusing on additional aircraft types.”

For Rockwell Collins, Boeing 757 and 767 avionics upgrades represent a major market, says Joe Gallo, the avionics OEM’s director of air transport systems marketing. “There are hundreds of those airplanes flying today that have a lot of life left in their airframes,” Gallo notes.  “Boeing continues to deliver new 767s, and there is no true replacement for the 757 to date. The plan for continued utilization of both these airframes drives the potential for retrofits.” 

For both airframes, the manufacturer is offering a large-format-display replacement for the current CRT systems, based on a Rockwell Collins supplemental type certificate coupled with a Boeing service bulletin. The retrofit incorporates the 15.1-in.-diagonal LCD display screens used on the 787, three of which replace the six CRT displays. This affords a 150-lb. weight reduction, while offering greater reliability and maintenance savings, says Gallo.

Given what appears to be increasing interest by airlines in avionics upgrades, there is the question of whether the airframe OEMs themselves could compete in the retrofit market.

Bob Dankers, director of avionics modification for Boeing Support and Services, says the company offers Boeing customers parts kits and engineering instructions needed to install equipment upgrades under an OEM service bulletin. Among the most common kits are those involving displays, FMS and modifications required for ADS-B compliance.

For example, Boeing is pursuing a modern FMS modification for the MD-80, which will provide a greatly expanded navigational database encompassing worldwide navigation aids and runway approaches. “The database now available has grown significantly over the more than 30 years since the MD-80 first went into service. There is also a need to provide the same upgrade to the 757 and 767 platforms,” Dankers says.

The OEM’s avionics modification and retrofit business has been growing over the past five years, mostly due to NextGen air traffic management requirements, Dankers notes. “In general, the older the aircraft, the more work will need to be done to bring it into compliance with the latest airspace mandates,” he says.

While most of the upgrades are being carried out by independent and airline-operated MRO providers, Dankers says the OEM might offer an alternative: “Boeing has done some retrofit installations on a case-by-case basis, but it is not a standard offering right now. However, making that available as a standard option is under serious study.” 

Gallery See more about avionics for con­nectivity and regulatory compliance at: 

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