RVSM rules take effect in North America

 - January 29, 2007, 10:32 AM

Whether pilots notice any difference remains open to debate, but anyone cruising in the upper flight levels over North America should at least be aware that they are passing much closer to other airplanes now that the mandate for reduced vertical separation minimums (RVSM) is in force.

At precisely 0901 UTC (4:01 a.m. EST) on January 20, RVSM rules went into effect in the U.S., southern Canada, Mexico, South America and the Caribbean flight information region. The rules have already been implemented over the North Atlantic, the Pacific, in Europe and in many other parts of the world, leaving North America as one of the last heavily traveled regions to adopt the reduced-separation standards.

Last month’s transition to RVSM in the U.S. went smoothly, according to NBAA, which monitored the program launch from the ATC command center in Virginia. Some business jet pilots who flew in RVSM airspace in the hours immediately following implementation, however, complained that the rules did not appear to make their lives any easier.

Oozing sarcasm, one professional pilot wrote to colleagues on an Internet message board that for him and his crew mate, RVSM seemed to make little difference in saving them time or fuel.

“What a great system!” the pilot wrote. “We only burned an extra 1,000 pounds of fuel, started down 200 miles early, and S-turned all over Pennsylvania and Ohio. I sure hope it was just our night in the bag and not the new-and-improved system they promised with RVSM.”

The “they” in this case is the FAA, which indeed promised significant improvements in terms of operating efficiency once RVSM rules were adopted. The agency, however, reported some minor software issues with computers at en route control centers, which may have contributed to some early snags.

Officials were quick to assure the flying public that the glitches were causing no safety-related problems for controllers or pilots and would be addressed swiftly.
RVSM reduces vertical separation between airplanes from the previous 2,000 feet to 1,000 in the airspace spanning FL290 to FL410. About two-thirds of business jets are cleared to operate in the airspace. Other aircraft must climb above RVSM levels or fly below FL290. Military aircraft and air medical flights are exempt from RVSM rules and may operate in the airspace without specific prior approval or additional crew training.

The FAA has said RVSM will save U.S. airlines billions of dollars in fuel costs in the next several years by allowing airplanes to fly at optimum altitudes. Scores of business jet operators, however, have contended that the required airframe and avionics upgrades, which can range in cost from about $20,000 to as high as $200,000, are unjustifiably expensive, especially for older aircraft. Needed upgrades can include new digital altimeters, more precise autopilots and improved pitot-static systems.

As many as 3,800 out of a total of about 9,800 U.S.-registered business jets are still not approved to fly in RVSM airspace, according to FAA figures.