THE END OF THE WATCH SHOP

Logistics service provider UPS has one of the largest A300 fleets. The model, which is clearly outdated, is now having its cockpit made over for the digital age with the support of aircraft manufacturer Airbus and avionics supplier Honeywell.
The Airbus A300 is one of the most legendary aircraft in the history of aviation. In 1972, the joint Franco-German aircraft was first launched to disrupt the American aviation industry’s previously dominant position. The major competitors were Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed. Airbus confronted them with a concept that was revolutionary at the time – the A300 was the first short- and medium-haul aircraft to have a wide fuselage and only two engines.

However, the airlines were skeptical, until, ironically, it was US company Eastern Airlines that put in a major order in 1977 that helped the new model to break through. Eastern CEO at the time and former astronaut Frank Borman recognized the advantages of the A300’s innovative design. The aircraft was smaller and lighter than its US-made competitors, which meant lower operating costs. Airbus launched a total of 561 A300 aircraft, and the cargo version was still in production until 2007. Today, the largest operators are express logistics company Fedex with 68 aircraft, and UPS with 52, with several smaller freight airlines also relying on Airbus’ new models.

THE A300 IS STILL VITAL TO UPS

An end is by no means in sight – the airframes are stable and long lasting, and should be in use for many years to come. Among the A300 customers, UPS is also considered a “late bloomer”: the first brand new aircraft did not join their fleet until July 2000 – 28 years after the maiden flight. It was not until 2009, i.e. after production had officially ceased, that they acquired the newest member of the fleet. At that time, other airlines had long since abandoned the A300 to replace it with more modern and fuel-efficient models. But it is precisely the large fuselage volume, the high load capacity and the medium-haul design that make the A300 so attractive to UPS to this day, especially for domestic use in the US.

Even though the oldest aircraft in the UPS fleet did away with the previously obligatory space for an on-board engineer, the cockpit was not considered state-of-the-art even then. Despite a few digital displays, many analog instruments still dominated the two pilots’ workstations – they even joked that the cockpit was a “watch shop”.

The workload in the cockpit of the A300 is also intensive. For capacity reasons, the flight management system cannot store data on all common commercial airports in the US. The crew therefore often has to enter new data manually, which takes time and can lead to errors. In addition, only a limited overview of the current flight status can be gleaned from the multitude of analog instruments and antiquated digital displays.

THE COCKPIT GOES DIGITAL

This is now a thing of the past: At the end of September 2019, the first extensively modernized A300 from the UPS fleet began flight tests at the Airbus site in Toulouse, France. The cockpit is now dominated by cutting-edge Primus Epic avionics from aviation equipment supplier Honeywell, making the aircraft highly digital. The upgrade includes a much more powerful flight management system, more accurate GPS navigation, a weather radar and, above all, an integrated Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) – a digital transmission system for transferring data between commercial aircraft and ground stations.
Now UPS is also able to kit out its A300 aircraft with completely new features using software stored on processor cards, for example, a central digital maintenance system with comprehensive status reports on the condition of the aircraft.

The test flights with the new cockpit technology are to continue well into 2020, since the systems and the aircraft itself will have to be completely recertified. Overall, Airbus and UPS expect the conversion of the entire A300 fleet to take several more years. At the same time, UPS has launched another major cockpit upgrade for its Boeing 757 and 767 fleet, but this is far less extensive and is limited primarily to replacing the screen systems.

“The A300 project is a true innovation,” says Kevin O’Hara, UPS Manager for Avionics and Systems Engineering. “We’re taking a 1970s aircraft and bringing it into the 21st century with new instruments and systems.”

Text by Behrend Oldenburg
Photos: UPS, Boeing