The first U.S. airline to fully equip its fleet and train pilots for GPS-guided required navigation performance (RNP) procedures has already seen “a decent payback” on its investment. “We’re hooked,” said Bill Ayer, chairman of Alaska Airlines parent company Alaska Air Group. “We think this is great technology because it has provided tangible benefits of improving safety and reliability and real financial return.”
Alaska Airlines pioneered RNP approaches into Juneau, Alaska, in 1996. In 2009 it became the first airline approved by the FAA to conduct its own RNP flight validations. The Seattle-based carrier now uses RNP procedures at 30 airports in Alaska and in the continental U.S., operating a fleet of 117 Boeing 737s equipped with RNP-capable flight management computers, displays and navigation receivers. Sister airline Horizon Air operates RNP-capable Bombardier Q400 turboprops.
Ayer spoke June 5 at the RTCA Symposium in Washington, D.C. He said Alaska Airlines flew 12,700 approach and departure procedures in 2011, logging 1,545 “saves,” or flights in which conditions below airport operating minimums without RNP would have forced cancellation or diversion. The airline burned 210,000 fewer gallons of fuel and saved more than $19 million.
Last year, Alaska Airlines flew 5,683 RNP procedures with 831 “saves” at Juneau International Airport, where the arrival route takes aircraft through the narrow Gastineau Channel. Ayer said the airline and the FAA have developed additional procedures in Alaska so that now every runway end in the state has vertical guidance, either through an existing instrument landing system or RNP. “You’ve got a nice stabilized approach to every single runway end in some pretty nasty wind and weather conditions in the state of Alaska,” he said. “We’ve eliminated the use of non-precision and circling approaches, with significant safety and reliability benefits.”
Alaska Airlines, the FAA, Boeing and the Port of Seattle are “making great progress” in certifying RNP approaches and optimized descent profiles over the Puget Sound into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Ayer said. The so-called “Greener Skies Over Seattle” project, launched in 2009 and later designated an FAA program, is expected to serve as a template for improving traffic flows at other congested airports. A new round of flight trials is beginning, and operational flights could start by the first quarter of next year, Ayer said. Using the new procedures, “airplanes are going to spend less time in the air, with less fuel burn and a smaller carbon footprint,” he said. “And because of the higher altitudes with the continuous descents, with these new routings we’re going to create less noise for the 750,000 Puget Sound residents.”