The mountainous terrain, the frequent rains, the heavy fogs that make the aerial approaches to Juneau, Alaska, some of the most challenging in the world historically have been major safety concerns and financial issues to any airline that serves the Alaska capital.
But a high-tech solution created by Alaska Airlines to make flying into Juneau safer and more reliable might now, a dozen years after it first went into operation there, change the way airliners and other aircraft worldwide navigate.
Though Alaska pioneered the concept and first put it to practical use, a Kent company leads the world in implementing the concept, called Required Navigation Performance, or RNP.
Four-year-old Naverus last week announced it would help the nation's biggest discount airline, Southwest Airlines, implement RNP procedures throughout its fleet of more than 400 Boeing 737s and at all 64 airports it serves.
RNP uses the satellite-based Global Positioning System coupled with the plane's instruments, autopilot and flight management computer to precisely navigate aircraft on their descents from cruise altitudes to landing and from take-off to their cruising levels.
Because the GPS system so precisely pinpoints the plane's location both horizontally and vertically, Naverus can design flight paths for the system to follow to avoid terrain obstacles, to dodge noise-sensitive areas and to navigate even through the thickest fog.
Privately held Naverus believes that within a few years, all aircraft will follow RNP procedures not only to improve safety and save money but also to deal with overcrowding by allowing aircraft to fly closer to each other.
Naverus, founded by two Alaska pilots and former Coinstar chief executive Dan Gerrity, has a near-monopoly on RNP now. Of the 400 approved RNP procedures worldwide, Naverus created 350.
The News Tribune recently talked with Naverus vice president of flight operations Hal Andersen, one of the company founders.
Big aircraft makers such as Boeing or Airbus or avionics manufacturers such as Honeywell or governmental agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration seem like more likely inventors of a system such as RNP. Why did it then fall to Alaska Airlines to originate the system?
You almost always need a proponent of new technology who can make it work, who can demonstrate its practical use. There are lots of wonderful technological innovations out there, but without an operator these things often don't go anywhere. Alaska Airlines was that proponent.
Why didn't Alaska Airlines develop a business around RNP?
They weren't really in that business. They wanted to run an airline. But after Alaska's success in Alaska with RNP, other airlines began contacting them. Alaska encouraged those of us who had developed the system to strike out on our own.
You began by consulting for other airlines who were curious about RNP. When did you finally decide to leave Alaska and form a business of your own?
I think it happened when WestJet contacted us. We were doing some consulting. WestJet had seen that Alaska had success. Everything had lined up. We had seen the development of the criteria in the regulatory bodies. At Airbus and Boeing, pretty much all the airplanes being built had this functionality. Now we had this entrepreneurial, very successful airline in Canada that was looking at RNP as a big economic lever that was reducing costs. WestJet gave us the job.
It was that night coming back from Calgary that we said OK. It was perhaps that classic story of a startup. We said, "Who's going to do this job?" There was a lot of excitement. The next step was we all had to go home and talk with family. And then it happened fairly rapidly.
Was it hard to put the business in motion?
(CEO) Dan (Gerrity) brought with him professional business people. We had a first round of investment, mostly friends and family, angel investors. We were in a great position because we had a proven technology. You could look at the experience at Alaska Airlines, and we had a contract in our hand. From an investment standpoint for a high-risk startup, it was pretty low-risk.
You've attracted considerable business from airlines in parts of the world as distant as New Zealand and Tibet, but last week's deal with Southwest Airlines has to represent a big landmark on the road to success.
It's huge for us. It's huge for the FAA, and it's huge for the industry as a whole.
An airline like Southwest, with its market dominance and its reputation, really validates the FAA's plan. It is the signal, and it is the indication that we are well into the navigation revolution and that we're on our way to transforming the airspace in this country.
What's your prediction for the future for the company?
Our mission is every onboard navigation system, every airplane, every runway in the world. There's 10,000 strips of concrete, 20,000 runway ends, 100,000 procedures.
Will RNP be adopted in less-developed areas of the world?
This is the cell phone model. You can create a modern system without creating a huge infrastructure. We are able to jump ahead 60 years and avoid all of that slow development. This is a great solution where there are great terrain challenges or financial issues.
And in the United States and Europe where the infrastructure is already in place?
The issue is different here. The issue is capacity. You have to allocate a pretty huge block of airspace for each plane because the lack of precision of radar and other issues. By reducing that position uncertainty and lateral separation en route, you begin to solve some of your airspace problems.
Founders: Dan Gerrity, former Coinstar CEO, and Steve Fulton and Hal Andersen, former Alaska Airlines pilots who helped pioneer RNP in southeast Alaska
First customer: WestJet
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John Gillie: 253-597-8663
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