Super Arrival: Emirates brings first scheduled A380 to Boston

As Emirates flight 237 approached Logan on the afternoon of January 26, 2017, it was evident that there was something different about this particular sector. In fact, it was an arrival that had air traffic controllers correcting themselves.

“Emirates 237 heavy…erm, correction, Emirates 237 super,” said the voice from Boston Approach after the Airbus A380 from Dubai made initial contact with the controller. A few minutes later, a Boston Tower controller had a similar exchange with the crew of the plane, which will return to DXB tonight as EK238.

These verbal stumbles were understandable. After all, Boston Logan has seen plenty of regularly-scheduled “heavy” arrivals and departures – a designation which is normally assigned to wide body aircraft like the Boeing 747 – over the years. However, this was the first time that the “super” designation, used by ATC for the very largest aircraft, had been used by a scheduled BOS arrival. And while the A380 operating in the place of the 777-300ER that normally operates this on this route is a one-off that was likely done to ensure that the recent upgrades to Logan’s Terminal E are A380-compatible, it was nevertheless an exciting event.

Fortunate Spotters Capture the Event

This wasn’t a significant media event by any means, but a number of fortunate spotters snapped pictures of the A380. The landing on Runway 22L was even caught on video by Instagram user nesam_sherovala, which allowed those of us who weren’t able to see the big bird touch down (such as myself) to enjoy the event virtually.

What it Means

I’ve said many times that I’ll always prefer the 747-400 to the A380, and today doesn’t change that. That said, this momentous arrival is exciting for the Boston aviation community, and – with British Airways scheduled to start flying the A380 on its BOS-LHR route alongside 747-400s, 777s, and 787-900s – signals the beginning of a new era at Logan.

A Super Visit: Emirates to fly single scheduled A380 to Boston in January

While British Airways is slated to be the first carrier to regularly fly the “Superjumbo” Airbus A380 to Boston, Emirates has beaten them to the punch in one respect. The Gulf carrier will have the maiden A380 flight scheduled to land at Logan.

According to Routesonline, the Gulf carrier plans to send an A380 from Dubai to Boston on January 26, 2017. This replaces the Boeing 777-300ER (77W) on EK237 and EK238.

Background

It’s worth noting that Emirates flew a similar one-off A380 flight to Chicago – a city that, like Boston, sees regularly-scheduled 77W service – during the summer of 2016. Given that the A380 usually necessitates airports to upgrade their infrastructure, the Chicago flight was mostly to check the infrastructure’s compatibility.

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The itinerary for the Emirates A380’s scheduled arrival (top) and departure (bottom).

While it’s quite possible that this Boston flight is similar in nature, it’s also possible that there’s more than meets the eye.

Emirates is the world’s largest operator of the A380. The carrier sends its A380s to an extensive number of destinations, including Manchester (UK), Copenhagen, and Toronto. And though each of those places have a number of international flights, they do not have any other regularly-scheduled A380s. With that in mind, it’s safe to say that Emirates doesn’t vet its A380 routes like others. Perhaps this is because it has dozens of the type, while other carriers generally have a dozen or so.

Power Motivation?

Considering Emirates’ pride in its A380 fleet, it’s quite possible that it’s simply pulling a power move. The carrier’s load factors to Boston haven’t suggested it’d be prudent to replace a 77W with an A380. However, as the world’s largest A380 operator, the motivation is understandable.

Regardless of the rationale behind this flight, it will certainly be interesting to see a scheduled superjumbo arrive at Logan for the first time next month. And – assuming BA’s scheduled launch goes as planned – it will be the first of many.

Low Overhead, High Impact: Airplane noise has Greater Boston up in arms

Wherever you travel around the world, chances are that pretty much every major city has a group of residents who have qualms with airplane noise. From London and the Cranford Agreement to the LaGuardia curfew in New York, airports, airlines, and pilots are forced to abide by certain rules in order to mitigate the inevitable noise that’s generated by aircraft.

Here in Boston, we’re not immune to these problems. As the 51st-largest airport in the world based on passenger traffic, Boston Logan International Airport sees a significant number of planes land and take off every day, many of which generate lots of noise. And while the implementation of RNAV (GPS) procedures from Runway 33L in 2013 as part of the FAA’s NextGen program has decreased the noise impact for a number of residents, it has conversely increased noise for others. As a result, there’s been palpable unrest in some of the impacted communities in the past few years.

The Basics

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A basic overview of Logan Airport.

As you can see from the graphic above, Logan has six runways:

  • Runway 15R/33L (10,083 feet)
  • Runway 4R/22L (10,006 feet)
  • Runway 4L/22R (7,864 feet)
  • Runway 9/27 (7,000 feet)
  • Runway 14/32 (5,000 feet)
  • Runway 15L/33R (2,557 feet)

Each runway is numbered by its magnetic heading. As you can tell, 4L/22R and 4R/22L run southwest to northeast, 9/27 runs east to west, and 14/32, 15L/33R, and 15R/33L run southeast to northwest.

Depending on which way the wind is blowing, the airport uses two (or more) runways at any given time. Each of the wind’s four intercardinal directions possesses its own configuration, each of which is illustrated below:

One minor qualm: the “Southeast configuration” doesn’t really exist as it is presented; it is extremely rare for arrivals to land 15R, as the ILS approach has an offset localizer. In that case, arrivals (interestingly enough) go to 4R.

What was it like before?

Prior to the implementation of 33L RNAV procedures, pilots used to simply fly generally along a given path. For example, a pilot who flew two 33L departures in a given month might make a left turn 30 seconds after rotation one time and a minute after rotation another time, which resulted in an extensive amount of variability in where the low-flying airplanes would be going. With RNAV, however, pilots are given a prescribed course of waypoints, often part of a SID (Standard Instrument Departure). These courses can even be flown by the plane’s autopilot, resulting in a route that’s much more precise than if it was simply “eyeballed.”

Generally speaking, a lot of communities west of Boston were forced to endure airplane noise, but such instances of noisy takeoffs were spread out. Below is an image that depicts the flight paths out of Logan before (green) and after (blue) RNAV implementation.

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As you can tell, flights have been much more specific in their routing since the implementation of 33L RNAV procedures.

Post-RNAV implementation has seen reductions in the number of communities impacted. However, the communities under RNAV patterns – particularly communities within the Route 128/I-95 belt – have seen a dramatic increase in overflights.

From Summer 2014 to Spring 2016, I lived in Somerville, quite close to waypoint TEKKK – the first GPS waypoint that planes departing from 33L must pass. As such, I got to watch an extensive number of aircraft from my bedroom window, flying a variety of routes, including the CELTK and LBSTA departures which are used by planes departing for Europe. And while I ultimately enjoyed seeing pretty much every heavy that went by, my favorite was undoubtedly the British Airways Boeing 747-400, which you’ll know if you read this blog regularly. Below, two pictures of that exact plane, taken from my living room:

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The Union Jack turning left at TEKKK after takeoff from 33L.
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Even caught a rare 15R arrival!

As you can tell from those pictures, those 747s were low – around 2,500 feet on departure and 1,500 feet on arrival. While I personally was thrilled to live in such an area, I know for a fact that many of my neighbors were not happy with the amount of air traffic coming over their heads. Even as an aviation enthusiast, I can understand why.

So who bears the brunt of the noise?

There is no foolproof way to know who in particular is impacted by airplane noise, or how much the total impact is (in terms of quality of life, decibels, etc.), so the best general metric I could devise was to aggregate the populations of all of the municipalities impacted by a given configuration.

As it is, the Northwest configuration – the one that uses 33L and 27 – has the largest impact on residents of the Greater Boston area. Due to the westerly direction of both runways, and the fact that Boston and most of its suburbs are located west of the airport, its SID patterns see aircraft of all sizes flying around or below 5,000 feet pass over a number of densely-populated communities, including Boston, Chelsea, Everett, Winchester, Medford, Somerville, Cambridge, Belmont, Watertown, Newton, Brookline, Quincy, and Milton. That’s not even including places like Waltham, which are further from the airport but where aircraft may well be below 5,000 feet depending on climb rates/etc. Even so, the total population of the area impacted by Northwest arrivals and departures is 1.503 million, or 22% of the Commonwealth’s population.

For perspective, the next closest operational configuration in terms of population impacted is the Southeast configuration, which sees aircraft take off and land over towns with a total population of 929,200, with the Northeast configuration affecting 886,000 people and the Southwest configuration impacting 884,900. Of course, all of those numbers factor in Boston’s 645,900 people, as each configuration has an impact on Boston proper, but the Northwest configuration sends by far the largest number of planes over Boston – particularly departures from 27. Moreover, even if we were to take out Boston’s population from each of those figures, the Northwest configuration would still have the largest number of residents impacted by a considerable amount.

If we want to consider solely departures as having a significant impact on residents by subtracting the municipalities over which solely see arrivals in a given configuration from the total, then the Northwest configuration still affects 1.475 million people. The remaining three, meanwhile, affect less than 50% of that number: the Southwest 737,100, the Northeast 718,400, and the Southeast 673,500. The reason that the latter three numbers are so low is because their departure procedures by and large send aircraft over water upon takeoff: even the southwest departures make an immediate left turn out to sea after takeoff from 22L or 22R, and 27 departures are virtually never used in the Southwest configuration. Northwest departures, meanwhile, are almost entirely over land for the first 5,000 feet.

Even so, it hasn’t just been the towns impacted by 33L departures who have felt aggrieved. Milton, which finds itself situated under the 4L visual and 4R ILS approaches, sees a number of aircraft, including 33L departures, albeit at a higher altitude than places like Belmont, Cambridge, Medford, and Somerville. And though – all things equal – the noise of a landing plane isn’t the same as one that’s taking off, Milton residents do have legitimate reasons to be concerned, as Milton selectmen have requested a study to evaluate the health impact of having so many planes flying low.

If RNAV increases concentration over certain neighborhoods, why implement it?

It’s the best solution for the majority of parties involved: pilots, passengers, and people on the ground.

Quite frankly, you can’t please everybody. Certainly, those living directly under these flight paths are much more heavily impacted than those who do not. However, as this Boston Globe article explains, RNAV procedures are designed to – among other things – increase safety and improve operational efficiency.

RNAV isn’t just beneficial for planes taking off; it also provides pilots with the ability to make smoother, more efficient descents. And while RNAV also has an impact on places over which planes are landing, logic suggests that, at least as far as sound is concerned, departures have a greater impact on residents than arrivals. This is because aircraft need significantly more power – which generates noise – to take off than they do to land. When a plane is taking off, it’s much heavier than it is when it’s landing, as it’s full of fuel. Moreover, the plane is forced to accelerate from a standstill to its takeoff speed, which can be up to 160 mph in the case of a 747. The principles behind landing, meanwhile, are just the opposite: a plane sheds speed – using minimal power – and comes in for a landing at a lighter weight and slower speed than it took off at. All other things equal, landings generate much less noise than takeoffs.

While this is an aviation blog, I certainly do sympathize with those who have to live in a location where airplane noise is consistent. However, until planes have the capability to fly without generating any engine noise, this will ultimately be an issue we’ll have to deal with.

The Numbers

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. According to this Massport table, numbers have shown that the distribution of flow configuration utilization is fairly equitable.

As far as jet departures are concerned, the 2016 YTD (January to September) numbers look like this:

  • Northwest configuration – 25.9%
  • Northeast configuration – 20.7%
  • Southwest configuration – 30.9%
  • Southeast configuration – 22.4%

Since Runway 9 is part of both the Northeast and Southeast configurations, its total number of departures have been split 50-50 between the total for each configuration for the purposes of this analysis. Of course, such a distribution is extremely unlikely, but I don’t have the resources to go back and analyze which Runway 9 departures were operations as part of which configuration, so I figured that was the most equitable way to do it.

Moreover, Northwest winds tend to increase in the late fall and winter, so perhaps the numbers don’t yet tell the full story. With that in mind, here’s the 2015 data:

  • Northwest configuration – 27.5%
  • Northeast configuration – 18.8%
  • Southwest configuration – 34.7%
  • Southeast configuration – 19.0%

Even the most-used runway – Runway 9 – which is part of both the Northeast and Southeast configurations has been used less than 1/3 of the time, at 32.5%. I’m certainly not trying to minimize the impact that Winthrop residents feel when planes take off or land on 9/27, as they are generally very low in both instances, but I don’t have the power to provide an immediate fix.

Moving Forward

As you can see, Logan already has relatively equitable distribution among the use of its runways. Each configuration has at least two, if not three, runways, and they are decided impartially. Moreover, the Massport Community Advisory Committe is conducting testing that will perhaps result in the developing runway usage plans, which would allow for more equitable sharing of noise, much like the runway alternation program at London Heathrow.

While a solution isn’t on the horizon at the moment, progress has been made. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure equitable distribution of noise while allowing aircraft to operate in a more safe and efficient pattern. Regardless of where you live, we should continue to strive for those ideals.

Delta Announces Boston to Dublin Flights: What’s the incentive?

Last week, Delta Air Lines broke the news that it’s slated to begin service between Boston Logan and Dublin. These seasonal flights will be operated by the carrier’s Boeing 757-200 aircraft.

This addition is the latest in a long line of intercontinental coups that Logan has bagged in recent years. Prior to 2012, the airport was primarily known as simply being an access point to other continents, as it only possessed nine destinations in Europe*. Since then, however, Boston has transformed into a true international gateway in the last four years with a number of new European and Asian routes. Here’s a brief recap of the destinations added, along with the airlines that serve those destinations:

2012

  • Tokyo – Japan Airlines

2014

  • Beijing – Hainan Airlines
  • Dubai – Emirates
  • Istanbul – Turkish Airlines

2015

  • Hong Kong – Cathay Pacific
  • Shanghai – Hainan Airlines
  • Tel Aviv – El Al

2016

  • Copenhagen – Norwegian Air Shuttle, Scandinavian Airlines
  • Doha – Qatar Airways
  • Dusseldorf – airberlin
  • Lisbon – TAP Portugal
  • London Gatwick – Norwegian Air Shuttle
  • Manchester, UK – Thomas Cook Airlines
  • Oslo – Norwegian Air Shuttle

That’s 13 new intercontinental destinations, a figure which is even more staggering considering Logan had nine European destinations prior to 2012 – so a 250% increase in destinations.* It should be noted that the five largest European markets – London, Paris, Dublin, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam – all had non stop flights before 2012, so it wasn’t like Logan had a dearth of intercontinental options. However, it is impressive that Massport has been able to bring in so many new carries and establish an AsiaPac presence that – cameos from Korean and El Al aside – didn’t exist.

If you read the various aviation forums, you’ll know that most people don’t really consider Boston to be a Delta “hub.” Their skepticism isn’t off-base, either, as Delta isn’t even the major carrier at the airport (that honor belongs to jetBlue). Moreover, as a major U.S. airline, Delta has an interest in acquiring traffic between Boston and its major transatlantic O+D markets: London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Dublin. And while it has a significant presence in the first three cities listed, BOS-DUB is dominated by Aer Lingus, which has two daily flights between the U.S. and Ireland.

Is this a power move by Delta? Yes and no.

It certainly helps the carrier augment its position as a hub in Boston, and it also solidifies its position as the dominant U.S.-based carrier between Boston and Europe. And while such a designation isn’t really under threat, as the only other U.S. airline to fly between Boston and Europe is American and its seasonal 757 to Paris, Delta will now serve four European destinations from Boston.

That said, even with Delta entering this market, Aer Lingus will still have the majority of market share, both due to brand loyalty and capacity as Aer Lingus operates the Airbus A330, which is significantly larger than the Boeing 757s that Delta will fly on the route. Additionally, BOS-DUB doesn’t have the same number of passengers as BOS-LHR or BOS-CDG. Yet by establishing seasonal service on a smaller aircraft than the Boeing 767s it flies to London and Paris or the Airbus A330 it flies to Amsterdam**, Delta has a low-risk “in” to a market that has traditionally posted very good load factors. So why not give it a shot?

Of course, there are a number of elements that factor into an airline’s decision to launch a route. Even so, this one seems like a no-brainer.

* Including countries in continental Europe, as well as the British Isles. This does not include remote European locations such as Iceland and Portugal’s Azores.

** Yes, the featured image is a Delta Airbus A330, but that was the only free stock image I could find.

On Hold: The A380 won’t be coming to Boston in February as previously planned

Just over three weeks ago, I wrote about how British Airways had planned to introduce the Airbus A380 on its BOS-LHR route in February of 2017. However, this morning I was surprised to learn that the A380 is no longer scheduled to arrive in Boston on February 3, 2017.

Though there’s no conclusive information (press release or public-facing memo) from either BA or Massport, thus far, I’ll outline what I do know:

  • Prior to the schedule change, the LHR-LAX and LAX-LHR routes — which normally see two A380s per day each way — were scheduled to have one A380 swapped out for a Boeing 747 Thursday – Sunday between February 2 and March 12.
  • As such, one of the two 747s operating LHR-BOS and BOS-LHR would instead fly LHR-LAX and LAX-LHR between those dates.
  • A Google Flights search revealed that LHR-LAX and LAX-LHR are indeed back to two A380s between February 2 and March 12.

After inquiring further, it appears that the A380-capable gates that are under construction in Terminal E will not be built in time for the scheduled start. While there has been veritable progress made toward building these gates, it appears that the project will take longer to complete than projected. And though I’m tempted to avoid making any premature judgments, I can’t help but think that this bears a lot of similarities to the infamous “Big Dig” construction project, which took twice as long as anticipated and cost twice as much as budgeted.

It’s too early to tell for sure what the real story is. Furthermore, it’s possible that, logistically permitting, BA may still send the A380 at some point next year. And with airline schedules and timetables subject to change quite often, we might even see a few more twists in the plot.

Regardless of who is ultimately responsible, one thing is for sure: this delay is not good press for any of the parties on this side of the pond that are involved.