While FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said required navigation performance (RNP) is receiving broad support in the U.S. and abroad, she acknowledged there is no one-size-fits-all navigation concept. The question she posed is “How do we balance finite resources in terms of WAAS/LAAS?”
According to Blakey, LAAS, the local area augmentation system, continues to enjoy the support of some of the airlines and cargo air carriers, but she cautioned there are “substantial technical obstacles” still to be overcome. And, even though the FAA has a research program to refine the system’s capabilities to support Category I operations, she explained that the technology for Category II and III is still further out in development. She placed the cost for 160 LAAS facilities over a 20-year life cycle at about $1 billion.
Blakey made her comments at the FAA International Safety Forum held in Chantilly, Va., near Washington Dulles International Airport in late September. The inaugural session drew 350 people from 12 countries, and the FAA hopes to make it an annual event.
She reminded those attending that WAAS, the wide area augmentation system, was commissioned more than a year ago, and the FAA continues to develop new instrument procedures. While general aviation has embraced WAAS, it will be expensive to achieve maximum benefits, Blakey said.
“Here’s the issue: How do we balance cockpit automation that relies on GPS with what providers such as the FAA are installing on the ground?” she asked.
FAA ATO COO Russell Chew insisted that the agency remains “fully committed” to LAAS, but he admitted that “we don’t have agreement” on WAAS and LAAS and “We don’t fully understand what the relationship between WAAS and LAAS is.” He also conceded that “We have integrity issues that need to be solved.”
The challenge, said FAA associate administrator for regulation and certification Nicholas Sabatini, is to combine WAAS and LAAS to serve both the airline industry and general aviation. The signal itself does not know whether it is called WAAS or LAAS. “So what do we need to do from a technology point of view to perhaps bring that together and serve the different needs of the different segments of this industry?” he asked.
Industry experts remain divided over the safety issues and benefits of the two systems, and as moderator of a panel discussion, Chew asked if the FAA should embrace RNP as the overarching architecture.
“I think that makes a lot of sense,” said Michael Cramer, principal engineer of flight management systems technologies for Mitre. “What we haven’t tried is to put RNP and LPLV approaches together,” he explained. Cramer helped develop the flight management system for the Boeing 737 and later expanded that FMS to include RNP.
Advocates of LAAS point out that the system would provide Category III approaches for virtually every runway where the ground augmentation is installed and can be used globally. It would also go a long way toward reducing controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents.
Blakey said RNP allows everybody to use all of the tools in the toolbox, providing vertical precision guidance as well as lateral guidance. “When you think about the fact that RNP reaches all domains of flight–departure, en route and arrival–that’s an operational concept we can embrace,” she told the safety forum. “I think the capacity and efficiency benefits are obvious, but it’s the safety angle that we absolutely cannot overlook.”
Noting that both Airbus and Boeing support RNP, she said that Europe, Asia, South America and Canada are embracing RNP. “The issue here, though, is that there are those of you who think we’re not being aggressive enough with RNP,” she said. “Now, is the perfect the enemy of the good here? With RNP, we can operate in narrow airspace, reduce vertical clearance and provide missed approach procedures with precise guidance.”
Some in the industry, however, are insisting that all of these capabilities be implemented with each new procedure, said Blakey, but she argued that “we need to get operational experience” and move forward in a progressive manner. “I understand you’re concerned that the optimum will never come, but is it worth waiting because you want the maximum capability right now?” she asked.
FAA and Industry Safety Initiatives
At the opening of the forum, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta recalled that the National Civil Aviation Review Commission, which he chaired seven years ago when he was working for Lockheed Martin, made recommendations that helped reduce an accident rate that had been “stubbornly stable” for 25 years.
“That’s impressive,” he said. “But we are not finished. Industry and the FAA are working together to identify and understand safety trends and to determine where we should collectively apply our resources.”
Mineta said that airlines and their employees are providing the FAA with critical data, which is in turn driving improvements in training, operation, maintenance and air traffic procedures. “The data is facilitating the shift from command-and-control regulation to risk management–working with industry to identify risks and anticipate potential safety problems so that we can prevent accidents,” he explained.
Blakey further suggested that information sharing is the next safety frontier, with 36 carriers operating 57 aviation safety action programs (ASAPs) covering pilots, mechanics, flight attendants and dispatchers. Thirteen airlines have flight operational quality assurance (FOQA) programs.
She called for sharing and integrating de-identified data with everyone on a secure network, perhaps with limited access. “If you can’t identify the trend definitively, the very real possibility is that you’re just looking at a symptom,” said Blakey.