Precise navigation equipment that's on board airplanes instead of on the ground will allow pilots to slalom around mountains, tall buildings or restricted airspace - and lead to fewer diverted and delayed flights.
The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday unveiled the technology and procedures that will open more runways when the weather's bad.
In Washington, airplanes have for years wended their way down the Potomac River on approach to Reagan National Airport - but only when the weather is clear and pilots could see where they were going.
Since September, the FAA has allowed pilots to use on-board navigation equipment to fly the curving route along the river even when the cloud ceilings are low and visibility is poor.
"The wave of the future is right here, right now on the tarmac at Reagan," said FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, alluding to a Bombardier Global 5000 business jet that would demonstrate the new approach on Tuesday.
With reporters on board, FAA pilots flew the jet down the Potomac River on autopilot. They didn't touch the control yokes as the airplane banked to the left and right while swerving - and descending - along the river toward Runway 19.
The FAA calls it "required navigation performance," or RNP. It's not a high-tech device but a standard for flying precision that can be met using satellite-based navigation equipment and on-board flight management computers.
Instead of flying straight to a point in space in order to line up with a runway, pilots stick to a tightly controlled path created by the FAA and coded into the airplane's computer.
The FAA has developed such paths, called RNP procedures, to airports with bad weather, mountainous terrain or both: Juneau, Alaska, San Francisco, Portland, Ore., Palm Springs, Calif., and Sun Valley, Idaho.
By the end of next year, the FAA plans 25 RNP approaches. Added to the list will be George Bush Intercontinental in Houston; Chicago Midway; Newark, N.J., Liberty; Honolulu International; Gary, Ind.; Tampa, Fla.; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Guam; Wenatchee, Wash.; Tucson, Ariz.; Long Beach, Calif.; and John F. Kennedy International in New York.
"You're going to see a proliferation of RNP approaches at those approaches that make the most sense," said Nick Sabatini, the FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety.
Sabatini said it only costs the FAA $20,000 to develop each new RNP procedure, and most airliners are equipped to follow them. JetBlue and American Airlines are in talks with the FAA to be approved for the procedures, he said.
Blakey said they will relieve congestion, save fuel and reduce flight delays due to weather.
"The environmental benefits are terrific, too," she said. "Flying straight down the middle of the flight path means that people on the ground perceive less jet noise and experience fewer engine emissions."
Alaska Airlines pioneered use of the technology in the mid-1990s because of the mountains and bad weather that make it tricky to land at Juneau International Airport.
Kevin Finan, the airline's vice president of flight operations, said Alaska flies into airports using RNP procedures 6,000 times a year. Thirteen percent of those flights, or 800, would otherwise have to be diverted, so the airline saves as much as $16 million.
"It affects Aunt Martha because she spends less time in a holding pattern waiting for the weather to improve," Finan said.
The airline has flown along the required navigation performance path into Reagan National 10 times since Sept. 28. Using normal approach procedures, three of those flights would have had to be diverted.
Brian Townsend, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association committee on modernizing the U.S. air space, said the technology for required navigation procedures has been around for quite some time. The aviation industry is only beginning to take advantage of it, he said.
"The benefits can be tremendous," Townsend said. "The sooner we can crank them out, the better off we are."
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