Navigating toward NextGen by taking NAS into the future

Going from existing ATC and flight planning into ADS–B and simpler flying.

Strategic and tactical opportunities

Navigational Reference System (NRS) "sparse" grid of 1600 fixes. Naming of fixes is designed to comply with ICAO standards, using today's Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCCs) boundaries as reference.

Aviation customers have requested both tactical and strategic airspace changes. They have done this via the RTCA Airspace Working Group. FAA System Operations tactical directors assist with immediate changes, but sometimes those issues need a permanent tactical change which requires formal airspace study and implementation.

There are also larger system changes that need attention and leadership from a national perspective. These needs can be mitigated using the technologies we all use today, keeping in mind where we ultimately want to go.

NextGen foundational work needs a centralized focus to meet NextGen concepts—which include "Big Airspace," universal high-altitude airspace (UHAA), "Future Facility" and adaptive or dynamic airspace design. Foundational work must be usable in today's operational environment, yet enhance or enable the rapid growth of NextGen.

One area not only offers much-needed foundational assistance, but has practical applications to today's most pressing system constraints. The region between Chicago and New York affects the NAS daily, contributing stress to the air traffic system, airlines and the folks inside the aircraft. It is an equal opportunity quagmire laughing at our collective misery.

These 2 metro areas account for almost 70% of system delays that reverberate throughout the world. They do not exist as single entities, but as major organs responsible for the life of the aviation system's aged body. By looking at today's available nav tools we can offer respite while building a strong foundation.

The Air Traffic System Command Center has recognized the need to modernize its playbooks to better serve those problems associated with large volumes of aircraft. Historically, these playbooks have been designed as ground-based routing to serve everyone, but today the center has started introducing replacement playbooks based on RNAV and using the NRS as part of the routing.

The plan

Work has already begun to distance ourselves from land-based navaids to RNAV positioning. In Mar 2007 two additional routes were introduced for departures eastbound exiting the Chicago area. These, with 2 other routes, created 4 RNAV routes to assist the redevelopment of ORD to its eventual 2014 configuration of 6 east/west runways.

In addition, the publication of an RNAV route exiting the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia area as part of airspace redesign is another example along with the existing 40-plus Q-routes.

The opportunity exists for the system to continue implementation of RNAV routing while devolving land-based routing (ie, jet airways, etc). Multiple parallel routes can be introduced to create needed structure only where necessary, and then—when structure is no longer necessary—allow the aircraft to proceed as their performance standards demand.

These benefits can assist the terminal airspace projects of Chicago and New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia immediately. At the same time, the airports in between these busy metroplexes (ie, CLE, DTW, PIT) can be assisted by their own structured routing, when needed, to alleviate restrictions they may encounter in the enroute system due to system constraints resulting from Chicago or New York traffic management programs.

Routing can also be developed to deliver aircraft to the satellite airports of these busy areas. Most operators of business aircraft and other high-performance GA aircraft are very familiar with the pains of taking delays to their airports when the major airports have arrival and departure issues.

The impediments to these improvements are no surprise to anyone in the industry. A few of these are: FMS/CNS database constraints, ARTCC software modernization delays, the "sparse" NRS grid not providing enough flexibility and the current naming system used for the NRS. All of these issues can be mitigated if industry and FAA work together to achieve foundational NextGen change.

These requirements were recognized in the summer of 2009 when RTCA Task Force 5 was tasked with the issues needed to advance NextGen. Its findings recommended these Enroute changes. Like all problems, the first step is acknowledging the need to change. The industry has done this, so the next step is to do it.

Taking the successes of early terminal RNAV development, where paths were laid out on top of existing land-based SIDs and STARs, they can be married to enroute change where environmental concerns are not as restrictive. Later on we can start developing all RNAV routing to shape optimal performance. This should be done before and in anticipation of future environmental demands where carbon output trumps noise, vision and particulate restrictions.

We have new tools and technologies being designed and in some cases, ADS-B, installed. What we can do next is accelerate the change and radically adapt enroute airspace routing (airspace above FL180) while traffic levels are low and before capacity reaches the complexity of 2008. Setting a timed goal for change using what is available today and anticipating tomorrow's potential will do wonders for an industry which sings the song, "Save a minute, save a mile."

Michael Hannigan recently won the Dept of Transportation's meritorious achievement award for work as FAA's program mgr on high-altitude airspace mgmt. He is also a pilot and spent his first 16 years in FAA as an air traffic controller.


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