Some commercial airlines and cargo operators seeking to prolong the lifespan of their fleets have upgraded flight decks from cathode ray tube (CRT) displays to modern liquid-crystal display (LCD) technology.
The wide range of available solutions for upgrading cockpit displays can require significant upfront investment, but also extend the useful life of the aircraft by upwards of 15 years. Designed to stave off obsolescence issues through enhanced functionality, reduced and more predictable maintenance costs, and compatibility with a wide range of current and future avionics upgrades, these products can revitalize older aircraft and allow operators to maximize their investment on the aircraft structure — but may not be the right fit for every air carrier’s needs.
Meeting Obsolescence Head-On
The end of the CRT era is upon us, bringing challenges to an aviation industry that still operates many legacy aircraft using the fading technology.
The sole remaining manufacturer of the technology, Japan-based Toshiba, is closing its last CRT manufacturing plant this year. Operators and avionics companies have been working to prepare the industry for disruptions caused by this transition.
“We understand that the current CRT-based electronic flight instrument system (EFIS) will not be supported by the OEM beyond 2020, therefore an affordable LCD replacement solution needs to be introduced to operators all across the globe,” said Alexander Krause, product sales manager with Lufthansa Technik, which offers a broad suite of cockpit avionics upgrades.
Krause notes that the most common types of aircraft for display upgrades are aircraft equipped with old CRTs — such as Boeing 737 Classics, 757 and 767 — but which still have many years of structural life remaining.
An immediate effect of CRT obsolescence will be difficulty finding replacement parts for thousands of active aircraft still using legacy displays. Replacing these increasingly vulnerable parts can save operators headaches down the line.
“Transitioning flight deck displays to LCD technology restores predictability to the supply chain by resolving the CRT obsolescence issue,” Thomas Global Systems CEO Angus Hutchinson told Aerospace Tech Review.
To resolve impending CRT production concerns, Thomas Global Systems worked in-house and with operators to develop its TFD- and EFI-Series plug-and-play LCD flight deck solutions. Available for Boeing 757/767 and 737 Classic and a wide range of regional and corporate aircraft, these products were designed to address CRT obsolescence, deliver the display performance and life cycle cost benefits of LCD technology, and provide a platform for new functionality, while offering an alternative to large-scale flight deck modifications and its associated installation costs.
“The more extensive LCD upgrades for the 757/767 and 737 Classic have been out in the market for some years now, and many operators have yet to equip,” says Hutchinson. “We wanted to provide customers with a practical and cost-effective alternative to resolve CRT obsolescence, with the capability to add functionality over time.”
In a contrasting approach to combating CRT obsolescence, Collins Aerospace offers a full-fledged 767/757 Large Format Display System retrofit, which updates legacy aircraft flight decks with modern technology similar to that found on the 787, 777X, and 737 MAX.
By removing 29 legacy LRUs (line-replaceable units) and adding 11 modern LRUs, Joe Gallo, Collins Aerospace global marketing director, pitches a comprehensive flight deck transformation that’s focused on extending the lifespan of aircraft well into the 2030s.
“If the customer is just doing a display change, that’s limited,” says Gallo. “If they can do a system replacement which has a graphics generator and all the symbology they’d need, adding a software feature function is much simpler than swapping out hardware.”
Gallo notes that customers are often surprised by the sheer number of potential obsolescence issues with older aircraft. The difficulty (and sometimes impossibility) of fixing legacy components such as the Mach Airspeed Indicator can leave operators at the mercy of the used market — a situation that can quickly get financially and operationally untenable if the component fails to last more than a couple hundred hours.
“The big difference here is taking this older, obsolete technology off of the aircraft,” says Gallo, adding that there are inherent longevity advantages to replacing analog equipment, which can be difficult to support, with more reliable digital components.
Offering a middle ground between plug-and-play options and a full flight deck retrofit, the Innovative Solutions & Support (IS&S) Cockpit/IP Flat Panel Display System (FPDS) for the Boeing 737 similarly aims to replace that aircraft’s legacy EFIS, but with the promise of minimal wiring modifications by utilizing the existing equipment racks and wiring connections.
“The IS&S system replaces more than 20 legacy instruments, including airspeed and altimeter, that are typically the lowest reliability instruments with the most obsolescence issues,” says Kevin Cravens, IS&S vice president, Program Management. IS&S also does a B757/B767 Flat Panel Display System retrofit that is already on more than 400 planes.
Making the Bottom Line Work
The value proposition of installing a simple unit replacement or committing to a full flight deck retrofit — or any solution in between — will vary based on air carrier type and expectations for longevity.
“Some of the conversations with customers, specifically with major airlines, have been ‘I need to fly the modern aircraft that are as efficient as possible, and we’d like to get our fleet younger,’” says Gallo. He adds that airlines often view fuel inefficiencies on legacy aircraft as making it impossible to justify the cost of a flight deck retrofit.
However, noting the “significant difference” between demands on passenger and cargo carriers, he says the passenger-to-freighter conversion market has been the sweet spot for the Collins retrofit program. The business case for justifying Collins’ estimated three-year payback has been easier to make with cargo partners such as UPS, FedEx and Atlas that can plausibly expect over a decade of additional service from the upgraded aircraft.
“These aircraft still have structure time on them so they go to cargo and get fitted there, lengthening the opportunity for that aircraft to fly another 15-20 years, whereas in a passenger environment it may not be able to, given the number of hours it would get taxed with each year,” says Gallo.
A major selling point for Collins has been the streamlined training and maintenance benefits offered by the 757/767 retrofit’s display commonality with newer generation Boeing aircraft.
“It is a full Boeing complement to the aircraft so if they had other aircraft – the symbology, applications and different options they would offer are all available are the same as the 787, 777X, 737 MAX,” he says, describing it as an OEM-driven baseline solution. “And as they look into future activity like ADS-B In, if they want to put an In-Trail Procedure activity on the display technology and Boeing already certifies it on aircraft like the 787, they could easily backfit that to their legacy aircraft.”
Beyond the benefits of fleet uniformity, Kevin Paul, vice president, Engineering Value Stream for L2 Aviation, exclusive manufacturer for the for the 757/767 large display system package for the Collins LDS system, notes there are immediately tangible benefits.
“There is a weight reduction of about 150 pounds which results in operational cost savings through reduced fuel burn,” says Paul, whose team did the engineering and were the FAA liaison for STC approval for the system. “There is also maintenance cost savings resulting from a five-times increase in display system reliability.”
Over the course of installing more than 500 systems at airlines (American, Icelandair, Jet2.com), cargo carriers (FedEx, DHL, Kalitta, CargoJet), and smaller VIP fleets (US government), IS&S has focused its FPDS value proposition on a combination of tangible savings benefits – including a roughly 175 pound weight reduction and equipment that outperforms calculated mean time between failures by a factor of four — and an intricately customizable installation processes.
“We have evolved our installation kit (panels and wires) to meet the needs of various installation scenarios,” explains Cravens. “Some installers prefer more labor and less material, so we added a configuration to the supplemental type certificate (STC) that allows repurposing of instrument panel wiring and Korry annunciators from the pre-modified airplane; other installers prefer to minimize downtime so we added a fully populated instrument panel with new wires and annunciators to the STC allowing quick removal of old, and installation of a new populated panel.”
Explicitly designed for the retrofit market, the IS&S installation repurposes as many wires, connectors, and trays as possible, while still maintaining ADS-B, RNP and CPDLC capability. The goal, says Cravens, is to ensure a downtime within the company’s typical range of five to seven days.
“We have seen airlines and MROs routinely complete the installation in less than 400 man hours,” says Cravens. “With some prudent preparation prior to aircraft induction, one MRO has been able to turn an aircraft in three days.”
Negligible downtime is a key selling point for Lufthansa Technik, which highlights the lack of need for pilot retraining and no changes to cockpit wiring – a feature which can drastically simplify the process installation process.
“We have done it already during a lunch break on a Boeing 757,” says Krause.
Thomas Global Systems has designed its TFD-7000 display systems for the Boeing 757/767 and 737 Classic, and its counterpart solutions for corporate and regional aircraft, to virtually eliminate aircraft downtime. Hutchinson says the plug-and-play feature is essential to their product line’s market fit as a practical and efficient solution for operators seeking the performance and life cycle cost benefits of LCD technology at a friendlier price point.
“These displays can be installed at the gate if required, or on overnights,” says Hutchinson. “It’s very quick to convert from the CRT to LCD display, almost instant, and that’s a key benefit for operators because the alternative of more extensive modifications can add cost and be more time consuming.”
Future-Proofing Your Aircraft
In addition to tackling immediate issues related to CRT obsolescence, as well as removing some maintenance challenges presented by outdated high-LRU units, upgrading to the modern range of LCD displays provides a roadmap for adding future functionality.
“The message we’ve received from operators [across markets] has been that they want practical replacements for their CRT units that can be installed efficiently, and the capability to readily add functionality as needed in the future,” says Hutchinson.
To create the TFD-7000 solution for the 757/767 and 737 Classic aircraft, Thomas Global adapted their high-performance AMLCD design and trademarked analog-to-digital software core, and added new graphics and graphics overlay capability and a growth platform, including a built-in card slot for new display functionality. The unit also has capacity for new ARINC-429 and discrete inputs using the existing rear connector, and 10% added display area for new symbology.
These potential avionics enhancements represent a viable path through the next decade and beyond for equipped aircraft. Touting a customer base of major passenger and cargo operators, including launch customer Delta Air Lines, Hutchinson argues that the increase in performance relative to existing CRT displays more than justifies the expense.
“Whether customers are solving for today’s CRT obsolescence, or also planning for evolving airspace requirements, the TFD-7000 Series delivers a high-performance solution with sound economics,” says Hutchinson.
The powerful components included in the Collins 767/757 retrofit program provide operators with immediate access to a wide range of next-generation avionics upgrades. Some of these à la carte options include cockpit-display of ADS-B traffic — providing situational awareness and growth to In-Trail Procedures — and heads-up guidance, which Collins says will be compatible to similar systems it has installed on 787, 777X and 737 MAX platforms.
“If they want to do ADS-B, we can give them opportunities to do that on the display technology or incorporate that into a handheld device,” says Gallo. “If they want to incorporate a synthetic vision system, the graphics generation has enough horsepower and processing power to perform that function.”
While the looming specter of CRT obsolescence may be driving the interest in LCD cockpit display upgrades, it’s the vast potential to maintain modernization in legacy aircraft for years to come that may ultimately convince operators that the investment is worthwhile.
“This is a great opportunity for airlines to elongate an aircraft that is coming new from the factory with 30-to-40-year-old technology, and putting them in a position to support any kind of future applications they would need,” says Gallo.