RVSM debutruffles few feathers

 - February 5, 2007, 5:34 AM

By most accounts, the start of reduced vertical separation minimum (RVSM) standards in North America a little over a month ago was a relatively smooth transition, even for business aircraft operators who had opted not to gain approval before the January 20 implementation date.

Doom-and-gloom predictions about choke points in the flight levels below RVSM airspace and potential delays never materialized, observers said, apparently because controllers were willing to accommodate most non-RVSM aircraft by letting pilots climb above the airspace and cruise on top.

Whether that option would be available had been the subject of much discussion in flight operations rooms and on Internet message boards as flight crews in the run up to RVSM speculated about whether the FAA really meant it when it said clearances to climb above the restricted airspace might be impossible for controllers to grant on busier routes. Officials had been warning for months that crews of non-RVSM airplanes should not automatically expect clearances to cruise above the airspace, but in the end it seems most non-RVSM airplanes were allowed to transition through the RVSM flight levels.

“I don’t know how many different ways I can say ‘nonevent,’” said Bob Lamond, NBAA director of air traffic services and infrastructure, when asked about how well operators coped with RVSM implementation. “We have found since the start of RVSM that climbs to FL430 and above continue to be a popular option for crews,” he said. “Controllers are getting more comfortable handling RVSM and non-RVSM aircraft by the day, so we only see things improving from here.”

Permission to climb through RVSM airspace, spanning FL290 to FL410, was apparently precisely what scores of operators were hoping for, considering that well over 1,000 of them did not obtain approval to operate in the affected flight levels by the January implementation date, with many balking at the high price for needed aircraft modifications, which in some cases can run as high as $200,000.

Meanwhile, the time it is taking operators to obtain RVSM letters of authorization (LOAs) in general has been between one and three months. That means for an operator who wanted to start on the road to RVSM today, it would likely take about two months to get a slot in a maintenance shop, another week or two to have RVSM modification work completed, and then at least a month to obtain the LOA.

Unfortunately for the buyers of new airplanes that roll out of the factory “RVSM ready,” the time it takes to receive that same LOA is not much shorter, and that has raised the ire of some operators. The problem, explained Lamond, centers on the fact that even though new airplanes may meet RVSM standards when they are delivered, operators must still submit all the RVSM paperwork to their own local flight standards district offices and then wait for the LOA to be processed.

Changing the procedure so that new airplanes can fly in RVSM airspace as soon as they come off the line is a priority for NBAA now, Lamond said.

“We need to change that FAA system,” he said, “so that when you buy an airplane that comes off the line RVSM-ready, and your crew training is done and your paperwork is done, the airplane is RVSM-approved. It’s something we’re very frustrated about.”