Traverse City News and Events

Addressing A 21st Century Airport Issue With A 100-Year-Old Solution

By Craig Manning | March 24, 2021

Traverse City’s Cherry Capital Airport (TVC) is looking forward to the installation of a technology that could prevent some 100 flight cancellations each year. The twist? According to TVC Airport Director Kevin Klein, the technology isn’t the latest innovation, but rather a system that’s existed in the aviation industry for nearly a century.

What TVC wants is called an instrument landing system (ILS), a technology introduced in 1929 and adopted for widespread aviation industry use in the 1940s. Utilized on airport runways, ILS technology is intended to help pilots align their aircraft to the center of the runway so they can land their planes in low-visibility conditions.

“It’s a ground-based system that provides horizontal and vertical guidance to the airplane approaching the runway,” Klein explains. “It uses radio signals and high-intensity lights, so that when pilots are coming in during fog, rain, snow, it provides them that precision approach to land on the runway.”

Currently, TVC has an ILS system installed on one of its runways. The other one, though – Runway 10, which accommodates landings for planes (like the one pictured) “coming from the west and landing to the east” – has no such system in place. Part of the reason is that the technology is considered by some in the industry to be outdated. In the mid-2000s, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) largely switched over from ILS navigation to GPS-based systems. While the GPS runway technology is theoretically superior to ILS, though, Klein says the industry would need a top-down technological upgrade – not just on runways, but in aircraft – to take advantage of it. More than a decade after the FAA pivoted to GPS systems for runways, those upgrades largely haven’t reached the aircraft.

“In 2008, on Runway 10, the FAA installed a satellite GPS approach, hoping that it would provide the same precision that the ILS would provide,” Klein tells The Ticker. “What they found is that the GPS system does provide that, but the aircraft operators – airlines, corporate aviation, freight, even our own Coast Guard – don't have the instrumentation within their cockpits [to use the system], and some of the pilot training hasn't been completed and won't be for many years to come.”

The pandemic, Klein notes, has many airlines looking at their airplanes and decommissioning older aircraft, which could lead to a wider-spread implementation and embrace of GPS landing technology. For now, though, ILS systems are the “tried-and-true” solution. Klein expects the technology to remain an important part of the aviation world for the next 40-50 years – either as the primary option for landing or as a backup to GPS systems.

TVC has the numbers to prove that its GPS system isn’t fulfilling its intended role. After the FAA put in the new system in 2008, the airport monitored its flight cancellation rates closely to see if they would improve. For four years, TVC watched as the technology failed to serve its full purpose. With no improvements in cancellation or flight diversion rates, TVC reached out to the FAA in 2012 to see about outfitting Runway 10 with an ILS system that could allow for improved navigation in low-visibility situations.

“At that time, the FAA said they were no longer funding ILS [installations],” Klein says. “They were going to all satellite-based. So since that timeframe, we’ve had to work to justify to the FAA that there was a case here [for ILS]. We were receiving multiple cancellations and multiple delays, so we started keeping track of this and studying this, and we appealed to the FAA on multiple occasions. Finally, in 2019, we convinced the FAA that we should proceed forward with an ILS because the GPS wasn't providing the same reliability.”

The catch? While the FAA will allow TVC to go forward with an ILS installation, the airport will have to pay for the system not with federal grant dollars but with “passenger facility charge” dollars, or PFC. It’s the PFC –  a $4.50 surcharge on every TVC ticket – that is funding the “study, development, and construction” of an ILS on Runway 10.

TVC is working on design and engineering steps for the antenna-based ILS system, which the FAA will ultimately have to approve and build out. Klein expects the preparatory steps to be done this year, with construction to begin next year. Ideally, the ILS system will be fully online “at the end of 2022 or going into early 2023.”

Klein estimates the cost of the Runway 10 ILS at “approximately $4 million” – though the project could grow to include an upgrade for TVC’s existing ILS system on Runway 28. That system has been in place since the ‘90s, and Klein speculates that an installation on Runway 10 might also “give the FAA an opportunity to put in equipment there.” If so, however, he says the FAA would foot the bill for that upgrade.

Regardless of what happens on Runway 28, the TVC team is pleased to finally have a plan in to bring ILS technology to Runway 10 and saving dozens of flights in snow, fog, or thunderstorms from being canceled each year.

“When you look at having this ILS, it’s one of the biggest issues that affects the airport and traffic,” Klein says. “When we get this installed, to me, it’s like opening up a brand-new Front Street.”

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