FAA unveils plan for performance-based navigation

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The US FAA has released its plans to transform air navigation to a performance-based system, and achieve its goal of increasing capacity in domestic and international airspace.

In its “roadmap for performance-based navigation”, the agency sets out a three-part strategy, beginning this year, to implement area navigation (RNAV) and required navigation performance (RNP). Most detailed is the first phase, set for 2003 to 2006. The second two stages, although broadly defined, will be updated over the next few years.

“By adopting performance-based navigation standards and leveraging existing and emerging navigation capabilities, we will be able to improve airspace design and air traffic procedures,” says FAA Administrator Marion Blakey. “This will let us increase access, reduce delays, and improve the efficiency of the National Airspace System (NAS).”

Under the FAA’s plans, the first major operational change will come in 2004, when the agency will begin implementing the RNP parallel approach transition (RPAT), a system that will allow synchronized landings during poor weather on parallel runways less than three quarters of a mile apart. Seven US airports – three in 2004, the remainder in 2005 – will be used to test RPAT procedures.

The first 11 RNAV routes in the USA will also be published in the first few months of the plan. Starting first with Q routes – a halfway move towards point to point-to-point flying – the FAA plans to have codified and implemented the procedures for RNP-2 by 2006. This will permit certified aircraft to fly point-to-point within an eight-mile radius of the RNAV waypoint.

In tandem with the RNP-2 implementation, the FAA will also adapt new offset rules. This will allow air traffic control to help point-to-point aircraft make tactical passing maneuvers, avoid weather, or circumvent restricted airspace. These trials will be conducted at Albuquerque, Houston and Minneapolis.

The FAA also plans to test RNP-2 and RNP-1 standard terminal arrival (STAR) and standard instrument departure (SID) procedures in 2004. Over the following two years the agency says it will publish about 30 of these ingress and egress procedures.

International navigation will also be adapted in the FAA’s first three-year period. Aircraft flying in the South Pacific region will experience the sharpest change, with the current 50nm lateral separation dropping first to 25nm, and probably to RNP-4, or 16nm.

However, these tests do not blind the FAA from the financial realities of today’s aviation industry. In the report, the agency notes that “based on current aviation economic conditions, additional investments in avionics capabilities by many operators will not be forthcoming in the immediate future, except to the extent that they are included as standard equipment on new aircraft. As a result, a mixture of RNAV and non-RNAV capability will continue for several years. Starting in the mid term [the FAA’s second phase, between 2007 and 2012], aircraft capability enhancements by various operators may resume, especially as they formulate business cases and strategies based on benefits.”

Despite this, industry may have no choice but to invest in the required technology. In the roadmap, the FAA sees RNAV as the “predominant means of navigation in the NAS” by 2012. It will even begin removing ground-based navigation infrastructure from 2010, although the agency confirms that ground systems will always be retained “to provide continued safe operations in the event of a failure of the Satellite Navigation system”.

The final two phases of the FAA’s navigation reformation are still being formulated. Although development of RNP-1 routes is being considered between 2007 and 2012, the FAA admits that it has to complete more research before it can define its longer-term plans. The same applies to the final phase, 2013 to 2020, during which the FAA says RNP could be mandatory in the USA, and navigation adapts collision avoidance systems to allow “tactical separation” of aircraft.