FAA chooses plan for N’east airspace redesign

 - April 30, 2007, 6:15 AM

The FAA selected a preferred alternative in late March for the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia airspace redesign project after 10 years of studies, meetings, legal wrangling and a bit of mud slinging. The Integrated Airspace Alternative (IAA) calls for entirely new concepts in airspace management and routing that the agency feels will greatly reduce delays in the busy northeast corridor.

Though the redesign was fueled by extensive delays at New York La Guardia and John F. Kennedy airports and Newark Liberty airport, general aviation stands to benefit if the FAA is able to deliver on its promises. The redesign, said the FAA, will reduce delays in arrivals and departures, provide more flexibility in routing, more evenly distribute controller workload, and increase the agency’s ability to meet current and future system demands.

The IAA calls for a number of fundamental changes to the way ATC handles aircraft in the terminal environment and the more accepted practice of changing existing routes and creating new ones to accommodate additional aircraft. The biggest change that will benefit all users is the expansion of terminal airspace rules.

Whereas previously only those aircraft within a certain radius of the terminal environment below FL190 could be spaced by a three-mile separation, the IAA calls for that standard to be expanded farther out and higher.

According to the draft environmental impact statement (EIS), FL230 is the target. Also, terminal holding from which any aircraft can be extracted at any time and interchangeable arrival and departure routes are also expected to ease delays.

Though the term Integrated Airspace Alternative conjures images of consolidated ATC facilities, what this will mean for New York’s center and Tracon has yet to be determined. The draft EIS does indicate that portions of Boston and Washington centers will most likely be assimilated into the new design.

The FAA also expects the use of Rnav to expand. According to Steve Kelley, the agency’s manager of airspace redesign, this could mean close-in parallel routing, using Rnav separation on takeoff, and other practices that aren’t allowed today. “Some of this will take rulemaking,” said Kelley. And that means the potential for delays in implementation. According to Kelley, however, the benefits of airspace redesign will begin to be felt soon after the record of decision is published, currently expected to be this August. “Developing Rnav is more long-term,” he said. “We’re looking at more immediate solutions that don’t require rulemaking.”

Despite the project’s focus on airline delays and congestion issues, general aviation has been an active player thus far. In fact, delay-ridden Teterboro was one of the five major airports studied.

Along with Newark, La Guardia, Kennedy and Philadelphia International, Teterboro was analyzed to see how Rnav, additional routes and integrated airspace could help reduce delays. The result is the IAA and, operators can hope, a reduction in delays.

The current route plan for Teterboro calls for a number of new arrival and departure routes, as well as moving some of the existing routes. Aircraft departing Teterboro to the south, for example, will have more options. The south departure gate is expected to shift slightly to the northwest, with an additional split once past the gate. The north departure gate will be shifted farther to the north. The west departure gate will likely be extended west, and two additional splits might be added. Arrivals are expected to be similarly expanded. The southwest arrival post will shift to the southwest of Philadelphia. The west arrivals will also be expanded and gain a new turboprop arrival gate.

But what does all this mean for pilots? Bob Lamond, NBAA’s representative on redesign, hopes it will be good for all operators who fly in and out of the New York metro area. According to Lamond, Teterboro should see great benefits, mainly because the redesign will take the heat off the arrival and departure “competition” between it and the New York-area airports. “There will be reduced dependency between arrival runways,” he said. Lamond also said to expect fewer flow restrictions.

Westchester County Airport also stands to benefit, given that it also competes for routes with JFK, EWR and LGA. Kelley said, “The important thing is that we’re moving forward with a system that builds on technology we simply don’t have today.” In other words, Rnav and integrated airspace should be a quantum leap forward in reducing delays.

Aside from Teterboro, the redesign team also studied 16 other airports in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Most of them were fields heavy with GA activity.

Lamond said to expect most of these airports to benefit from the IAA. “There was some early modeling that said outlying airports might have a couple of extra routings to get to or from them,” he said. “This will mean fewer delays on the ground and better efficiency.”

From the pilot’s perspective, other than reduced flow restrictions, integrated airspace should also mean fewer handoffs and an ATC process that is closer to seamless. And then there’s the overall reduction in delays. According to the draft EIS, future arrival delays should fall to 19.9 minutes from an expected average of 22.9 minutes.

Departure delay averages are also expected to decrease, from 23.3 minutes to 19.2 minutes. The total delay time, however, is where the FAA expects to see real improvements. The preferred alternative is expected to save a total average of 12.6 minutes per flight.

But this plan, like any major change the FAA embarks upon, is expected to generate stiff opposition, though not from the normal aviation interests. In fact, groups such as NBAA are happy with the progress thus far. “We support the integrated airspace alternative,” said Lamond.

Community groups might not agree. Many have popped up in the areas of the changes, and the FAA has spent millions of dollars trying to mitigate their concerns about noise, pollution and safety. Lawsuits are expected, though the FAA’s Kelley said he expects the agency to be successful. “I’m confident that we’ve laid out building blocks to challenge them sufficiently,” he said.

After five public meetings at the end of last month to mitigate the community’s concerns, the FAA’s next step is to publish the final EIS, expected in a month or two. Then the record of decision will be published and the agency will work full tilt to implement the first phase, which calls for some routes to shift and the addition of others.

From there, some of the specifics have yet to be worked out. What is known is that the idea of integrated airspace is just the beginning.

“I think it will repeat itself in other places,” said Lamond. And Kelley thinks the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) will complement the FAA’s efforts. “It’s an open door to use new technologies to do the job better,” he said.