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Idling approaches on tap for Capital region in 2012

A slate of new "green" optimised arrival and departure procedures for three major "metroplex" airports near Washington DC will go live in stages starting in September 2012.

As of late November, United Airlines and US Airways pilots had tested the procedures during simulator sessions at each carrier's facilities, with United focusing on arrivals and departures from Dulles international airport and US Airways on Reagan National airport. Southwest Airlines is to test new procedures for the Baltimore-Washington international airport.

Part of the US Federal Aviation Administration's optimisation of airspace and procedures in the metroplex (OAPM) programme, the procedures are meant to bring fuel and other environmental savings to crowded airspace regions using aircraft with legacy avionics.

The Washington and Dallas metroplexes were the first to be analysed under OAPM, with teams made up of FAA, controllers, airlines and other stakeholders starting work in September 2010.

After a three month analysis of each metroplex, the teams made recommendations to the FAA in December 2010 that included "converting conventional procedures to PBN, removing level-offs on arrivals, segregating arrival routes to de-conflict flows, expediting departures and realigning airspace to support those changes," according to the FAA.

Brian Townsend, a flight technical operations pilot with the US Airways team, said the effort represents a break from tradition in airspace programmes. "Instead of trying to build procedures around existing airspace, we build the airspace around the new procedures," said Townsend.

Southwest and US Airways participated in a similar airspace redesign for the Phoenix Sky Harbour airport in 2006, which included optimised "idling" RNAV approaches that save an average of 23 gallons of fuel per approach, according to a 2010 analysis by Mitre. The FAA says the optimised profile descent (OPD) arrivals at Phoenix have resulted in a 38% reduction in "the time aircraft remain in level flight", with "user benefits" of $2 million in fuel and 2,500t less carbon dioxide emissions per year.

An OPD generally start 100-130nm out from the airport and terminate after an idling approach near the final approach fix, about 10nm from the runway end. Part of the simulator effort is to verify that the procedures will work in worst case conditions, which for Washington can mean prevailing winds at altitude of up to 150kt. "You have to make sure the procedure is flyable in those conditions," he said.

The team will continue the design and implementation phase of the project through March 2012, with a goal for the full Washington metroplex of going live with the new procedures by April 2014.

Portions of the DC area OAPM programme will become operational by next September however as part of a 11 September 2001 tribute. The FAA said the procedures and waypoints contained in the procedures will have names that honour the victims of the tragedy.

After Washington and Dallas, teams will focus on metroplex procedures for Charlotte, Southern and Northern California, Houston and Atlanta.

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