New Heights
Innovation in the air and on the ground keeps Alaskans flying
By Isaac Stone Simonelli
Illustration of paper airplanes flying

ecessity continues to drive innovation in Alaska’s aviation industry from COVID-19 protocols and expanded flight services to glass cockpits and FAA’s Visual Weather Observation System.

In a state that’s 663,000 square miles with only 1,082 miles of highway, demand on the aviation industry to meet remote community needs is unparalleled. In 2020, the industry’s top concern was adjusting to COVID-19 to ensure employee and passenger safety.

Responding to COVID-19

At Alaska Airlines, this led to numerous changes, including the company roll out of contactless services, says Marilyn Romano, Alaska regional vice president for Alaska Airlines.

“Sometimes a crisis can also help you accelerate things that were already on a priority list somewhere,” Romano says, referring to contactless travel, which allows passengers to do everything from booking to pre-ordering a cheese platter without ever having to physically hand someone a credit card.

“To be able to get that moved to the top of the list, focused on safety, was actually exciting for us because it was an innovation that we really, really wanted to do,” Romano says.

Before the pandemic, Alaska Airlines aircraft were already equipped with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which cycle outside air into the plane, fully refreshing it every three minutes, Romano says.

Even so, as part of its COVID-19 protocols, Alaska Airlines put in place mandatory mask and social distancing requirements, as well as made hand sanitizer packets available for passengers.

“And then our enhanced cleaning,” Romano says. “We have those incredible teams that go on to our airplanes and do major touchpoint cleanings, and then we do electrostatic spraying.”

While all of Alaska’s air carriers have now developed and implemented comprehensive cleaning plans, early in the pandemic accessing PPE and sanitation and cleaning supplies wasn’t easy for anyone, says Grant Aviation President Rob Kelley.

“There was a period of time where hand sanitizer was pretty much impossible to come by, so we were producing it in house according to the World Health Organization [recommendations],” Vice President of Station Operations Cory Clark says.

Adding to the period of frantic activity as local carriers scrambled to source supplies and update flight protocols to meet state and federal guidelines, Ravn—Alaska’s largest rural airline—grounded its fleet.

Alaska’s no travel mandate took effect on March 28, and by April 2 Ravn had discontinued about 90 percent of its operations, filing for bankruptcy on April 5.

Ravn’s closure created a void for cargo and freight delivery that needed to be immediately addressed, despite passenger numbers hitting record lows and an industry already dealing with unprecedented challenges.

Fortunately, other local carriers stepped in to ensure that remote communities continued to receive scheduled flights.

“And a lot of times that’s life sustaining medicine, food, and supplies,” Kelley says. “They can’t go down to the local grocery store like you and I can. If they go somewhere, they’ve got to go by flight.”

Grant Aviation, having seen warning flags prior to Ravn folding, was prepared to join with other local carriers to meet demand, Vice President of Operations Dan Knesek explains.

So instead of parking part of its fleet due to low passenger numbers, Grant Aviation shifted gears, keeping its team employed and the state’s rural towns and villages safe and supplied as the pandemic continued to weave its way through Alaska.

“Sometimes a crisis can also help you accelerate things that were already on a priority list somewhere.”
Marilyn Romano, Regional Vice President, Alaska Airlines
A Safer Flight

Throughout the year Grant Aviation continued to incorporate new aviation innovation into its business model.

“A lot of the new aircraft being manufactured today won’t work in the environment that we have to fly in, which is small, short, skinny, gravel strips in the Bush of Alaska,” Knesek says. “What we’ve been doing is putting new innovations into our current fleet.”

One significant change is the use of glass cockpits, which Knesek explains provides a “huge amount of safety to our pilots.”

The system shows pilots a digitized view of the terrain around the plane and airport on a glass panel even when they’re in thick cloud cover.

The company has also recently finished installing new autopilots and avionics in its King Air 200 aircraft and has spent the last eighteen months putting similar upgrades in the Cessna 208 Caravans.

“With the new solid state servos and digital autopilot, we’re seeing a huge increase in the aircraft reliability,” Knesek says.

Without an autopilot, Grant Aviation pilots can’t fly under the FAA’s instrument flight rules. This rules out flying in clouds and low inclement weather.

“This is allowing us to be more reliable and operate better during these winter months,” Knesek says.

Operation and safety advances can be implemented both on and off the aircraft, Kelley and Knesek say, and some of the most important aviation innovations in Alaska never take wing.

For example, the FAA Weather Camera System put in place between 2007 and 2009 has had a significant impact on safety and reliability for smaller aircraft.

“We installed 230 sites in Alaska, and during that time we worked with Canada to teach them our technology,” FAA Aviation Weather Cameras Program Manager Walter Combs says.

“The program was actually funded, originally, by Ted Stevens, who recognized that aviation accidents in Alaska, a large majority of them, were actually weather related—and CFIT accidents, controlled flight into terrain, are almost always due to lack of visibility.”

Though it was more common in the past, there are still many places in Alaska where pilots need to climb into their planes, take off to check out the weather, and determine if they can make it through the “pinch point.” These points, such as mountain passes, are places where the weather can change quickly and a pilot can start losing visibility.

What weather cameras have brought to the table is the ability for pilots to check pinch points before taking to the air, Combs says.

“They get online and they look and see what the pass looks like on their route,” he continues. “They can look at all the weather information along their route, as well as a whole host of aviation data information that we now provide on our website.”

The website also includes data from Canadian camera systems.

“We address the safety aspect of pilots flying into the clouds, but we’re also addressing the efficiency: pilots aren’t flying seven round trips halfway up into the canal and back,” Combs says. “Safety and efficiency is our primary goal, and we’re hitting those goals with the programs.”

New Tech

Combs’ most recent project will impact at least 140 communities reliant on air travel in Alaska.

The new technology is a Visual Weather Observing System (VWOS) that can be implemented in communities that don’t have an Automated Weather Observing System (AWOS).

“In order for us to fly IFR [instrument flight rules] to a village, not only does it have to have an FAA approved instrument approach procedure but it also has to have an FAA approved weather reporting system,” Grant Aviation’s Knesek says. “The current systems that are out there cost millions and millions of dollars to install and maintain.”

Without these expensive, certified AWOS setups providing certified weather reports to pilots, they are unable to fly into remote villages when there is heavy cloud cover or inclement weather.

“The aviation industry has been quite vocal about, ‘We need more AWOS,’” Combs says. “The problem that we’ve got is the cost of the AWOS is so extreme that the agency just really can’t afford to put new systems in.”

The VWOS that Combs is testing and building would cost about 10 percent of what it costs to install and maintain an AWOS system.

The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 paved the way for this new technology. In 2017, Representative Don Young wrote the FAA asking that either it fund more AWOS in Alaska or eliminate the requirement for airports without the expensive device.

In response, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 made it possible for an alternative system to provide “non-certified weather” to pilots operating in Alaska and Hawaii, Combs says.

The weather camera systems’ weatherheads are missing three vital data points that pilots need for non-certified weather observations: ceiling, visibility, and pressure, Combs says.

The VWOS system Combs is working on incorporates sensors on the weatherheads so the VWOS observation includes that data.

“It will have all of the fields necessary for a pilot to make a flight decision under this new category of service called non-certified weather,” Combs says.

The system is being designed specifically so pilots can remain in compliance with both the Reauthorization Act and the “AC 135-45-Use of Noncertified Weather Observations in Noncontiguous States” document.

Though the system is set to be tested in four places in Alaska, it’s not yet ready to be rolled out at the 140 community airports without an AWOS in Alaska.

“We’re testing the usability, viability, the dependability, and accuracy of the VWOS system,” Combs says, noting that the team is also testing integrated self-check and self-validations systems that rely on new technology.

However, working technology is only one aspect of a fully functioning system.

“We also have to test and analyze and perfect the operators’ use of our systems,” Combs says. “We want to demonstrate that our system is not just usable but that it supports all the needs of the pilot flying in, to, and out of these airports.”

Despite the significantly lower price tag, funding remains one of the biggest hurdles the FAA needs to overcome to implement the system once it’s been proven, Combs says.

Knesek and Kelley both point toward Combs’ VWOS system as a significant innovation in the industry on the cusp of coming to fruition. They also look toward SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet system.

“The way we’re expecting it to be, it’ll give us the ability to do so much more even at our bases but also with our planes in the air,” Kelley says.

Kelley expects the system to allow ground operators to talk with pilots the entire time they’re flying.

“We do not have that capability now. But with the signal coming from a satellite versus ground base, you don’t have all the impediments to the connection, because it’s coming from the sky rather than coming from all the rough terrain of Alaska,” Kelley says.

Innovations in the aviation industry continue to take on many forms. Technology on the ground and in the air is complemented by advances in services and expansion of destinations to connect Alaskans in even the most rural parts of the state to Outside.

“It’s what we call innovation through necessity,” Combs says about his projects with the FAA. “There’re heavy needs in Alaska… It’s tough to travel here. It’s tough to live here sometimes—you know, desperation and innovation go hand in hand.”