Free Flight is goal of airspace plan

 - October 11, 2007, 6:42 AM

The FAA has begun redesigning high-altitude airspace above FL390, and among the first beneficiaries will be Rnav- and RNP-equipped business jets that routinely operate at those altitudes.

“A lot of the traffic at 390 and above is corporate jets,” said Bill Peacock, FAA manager of air traffic services. “A big percentage of them are [already] equipped.” He added that the FAA has already briefed NBAA, RTCA and some fractional operators about the program.

The first phase of the high-altitude redesign (HAR), to begin May 15 in the airspace of the seven en route centers in the Midwest and Northwest, will allow suitably equipped aircraft to fly point-to-point on a route selected by the pilot. The HAR will be expanded next to include another seven centers in the Southwest and South, followed by the remaining six centers in the Northeast by 2006. The pace of later expansion to altitudes below FL390 will depend on the extent of aircraft equipage by then.

“The program is twofold,” said Peacock. “It is high-altitude working down and starting at the ground and working up. In the case of high-altitude redesign, that will start with the seven centers in the Northwest.”

The FAA estimates that roughly 2,000 flights per day in that airspace could potentially take advantage of the changes, provided they are equipped with Rnav and RNP technologies for point-to-point direct routings. Other airplanes that are not equipped will continue to operate as they do now.

After all 20 centers in the continental U.S. are involved, the FAA plans to expand the concept down to FL350, and, if everything goes well, even below that. “We’re not going to keep anyone out of the airspace,” said Peacock, “but if they want to take full advantage of the new routings, then they will need to be Rnav/RNP equipped.”

The FAA estimates that newer transports, a large number of the new regional jets and business jets can easily operate above FL390. Of the airplanes that are equipped, a much higher percentage of them will be able to go point-to-point, filing the route that they prefer, based on wind or other considerations.

“At some point, if we have enough volume of airplanes in a particular part of the system, then we have to put in flow control or whatever,” Peacock said. “So I don’t know that we’ll ever get to the point that we can say all of them [will be able to fly point-to-point].” He explained that the FAA is setting up “pitch and catch points” so that at a point a certain distance from an airport, “we would expect them to be able to join the routing that they want and stay on that routing until they get to the catch point at the other end.”

Don Ossinger, a Natca representative assisting with the FAA’s national airspace redesign, said the newer flight-planning computers coming online can monitor and “surf the jet stream. So if it’s beneficial for you to go a little bit out of your way to catch a favorable jet stream–both to save fuel and get there in quicker time–this new FAA concept will allow for this routing.”

The FAA plans on providing “much more real-time information” on special-use airspace, and point-to-point will enable pilots to flight plan the way they want to go around it–based on the wind–before they leave the ground. “Right now we drive them up to [special-use airspace] and say ‘you’ve got to go around it,’ and we generally pick the way they go,” said Saubra Kaulia, director of the FAA’s air traffic management program. “And this routing may not be the most efficient one.”

Beginning this summer, HAR will enable the FAA to put in parallel Rnav routes, so pilots need not queue up so far in trail to get into a constrained gateway. Using San Francisco as an example, Kaulia said restricted areas that are close together require a single flow in and a single flow out because of conventional Vortac-type navigation. With Rnav there can be two routes in and two routes out.

Ossinger said that once the rulemaking is completed, there will be new “Q-routes”–similar to a Victor airway–as an identifier under International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) rules. Additionally, there will be a “navigational reference system,” the beginning of a possible global grid system.

“This will reduce our reliance on ground-based navigation and work toward a new system of navigation,” he explained, “not only in the U.S. with the seven Northwest centers, but hopefully someday throughout the world.” This will allow more waypoints, each of which will have a five-character identifier.

The FAA expects to add another seven centers in the southern part of the country within the next year. The final six in the Northeast have to be coordinated with the work already done on the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia airspace redesign, Kaulia said. The Northeast centers are expected to be included in HAR by 2006.

May 15 was chosen to coincide with the next charting cycle, which will include special-use airspace and the pitch-and-catch waypoints for getting in and out of that airspace. That will be followed in the July charting cycle with more of the database, and in September the entire grid (for the Northwest) will be released so that pilots can enter it into their computers and begin flight planning with the new waypoints.

“Full implementation–special-use airspace, parallel Rnav routes, the grid, 390 and above–all of that will be in place in the October to November timeframe,” said Kaulia.
The national airspace redesign is a major element of the FAA’s Operational Evolution Plan (OEP). Its bottom-up portion is the redesigning and optimizing of the local airspace to increase efficiency and reduce delays for flights in and out of terminal areas.

This local effort is already under way in several major metropolitan areas, including New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia, Baltimore-Washington, Boston and the Los Angeles basin. One goal of local airspace redesign is to take maximum advantage of the additional capacity offered by new runways coming into service this decade. Major airports that will get new runways include Houston, Orlando, Fla., Minneapolis, St. Louis, Atlanta and Cincinnati.