American Airlines Awaits Fruit of NextGen Investment

 - September 16, 2013, 10:50 AM
American Airlines has invested $400 million on NextGen equipment, including retrofitting GPS on its 757/767 fleet. (Photo: American Airlines)

American Airlines has spent some $400 million in the past few years to retrofit its existing fleet for the planned NextGen flight environment in the U.S. But at this stage it has not seen the operational benefits it had hoped for, according to the airline’s director of airspace modernization and advanced technologies.

Brian Will, an American Airlines captain who has responsibility for NextGen-related equipment and procedures, said the carrier installed GPS on 120 Boeing 757s and 767s at a cost of nearly $2.5 million per aircraft. It carried out the retrofits anticipating that the Federal Aviation Administration would require aircraft to have RNP-2 capability in continental airspace above 28,000 feet. It also spent more than $60 million to equip its MD-80 fleet with new displays for terminal area navigation (Rnav) requirements.

In July 2003, the FAA published a “Roadmap for Performance-Based Navigation” that outlined its strategy for implementing Rnav and required navigation performance (RNP) routes and procedures in three phases through 2025. In a 2006 update, the document indicated that RNP-2 would be mandated in en route airspace at and above FL290 (29,000 feet) during the mid-term phase of 2011 to 2015. RNP defines the ability of an aircraft’s navigation equipment to achieve a specified level of lateral accuracy for 95 percent of the time. During operations in airspace designated RNP-2, which requires GPS as the primary navigation sensor, the aircraft must keep within plus or minus 2 nm of its required track.

Will said the expected mandate lapsed after American Airlines committed to retrofitting its 757/767 fleet. “We told our executives, the 767 can’t fly from New York to LA at 26,000 or 27,000 feet, and they said ‘we agree.’ After we put that program in place, unfortunately, the [FAA’s] intent to do that went away. It just disappeared,” he said. “But the check had already been written.”

On September 10, Will participated in a panel discussion at the NextGen Ahead conference in Washington, D.C. He later spoke with AIN regarding American Airlines’ investment in NextGen equipment. His comments shed light on the sizeable investments airlines will have to make to comply with NextGen communications, navigation and surveillance requirements. It has been estimated that completing the NextGen modernization by 2025 will cost government and industry $40 billion or more.

Will said airlines will also be challenged to equip their fleets for automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), the surveillance piece of NextGen, by 2020 as mandated by the FAA. “We have some concerns about ADS-B domestic because the United States is the only country that has said you have to have some augmentation scheme for ADS-B positioning,” he explained. “The cost for that is going to be really, really significant. We have to replace multimode [navigation] receivers across our entire fleet. The notion of even doing that on some of our airplanes like our MD-80 fleet is almost unthinkable. We can’t see how we could justify the cost of that.”