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It’s a good time to be an airline. Low fuel prices, cheap credit, and rising demand for air travel—particularly on budget flights—allowed airlines to add to their fleets and carry an unprecedented 4.1 billion passengers in 2017, a 7.1% increase from a year earlier, according to the United Nation’s civil aviation authority.
But while that growth makes for a lot more paying customers, it also makes for more aircraft competing for airspace in some of the world’s busiest airspace. Air traffic controllers face a particularly thorny challenge when routing a growing number of aircraft through busy transoceanic corridors like the heavily-trafficked North Atlantic, where terrestrial radar is limited and is largely unable to track aircraft in real time.
With only a vague idea of any given aircraft’s precise moment-to-moment location, controllers often maintain a gap of as much of 100 miles between aircraft, a safety precaution that forces pilots to take routes that are longer and require burning more fuel. “You would think aircraft fly pretty straight from point A to point B,” says Don Thoma, CEO Aireon. “But [flight routes] can look more like a spirograph.”
Aireon, a partnership between global communications satellite operator Iridium and a handful of air traffic control providers, is trying to change that by connecting global air traffic to a satellite-based communication network. Through technology known as ADS-B, Aireon would track commercial aircraft anywhere in the world in real time—including over remote stretches of ocean—allowing controllers to space aircraft more tightly and giving pilots the ability to select better routes and altitudes.