FAA backs expansion of navigation technology

Aviation Industry Leaders Attend Summit In Washington
Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Marion Clifton Blakey delivers the luncheon address at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on April 4, in Washington, D.C. Blakey has given her support to wider development of satellite-based navigation technology.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

The administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration gave her support Tuesday to wider development of satellite-based navigation technology that has been used for more than a year at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and other U.S. airports.

FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey said the new technologies would help airports cope with projected growth in air traffic and make flying safer.

In remarks prepared for an event in Washington, Blakey said the satellite-based system called area navigation is saving $8.5 million per year at DFW Airport and a reported $36 million in Atlanta.

Officials at American Airlines, the nation's largest carrier, say area navigation saves fuel and lets planes take off simultaneously from parallel runways at DFW.

Area navigation systems let pilots fly along a tightly controlled path entered into the plane's computer, resulting in more direct routes. It replaces the decades-old and more roundabout method of flying from one ground-based navigation point to another, then finding the runway and landing.

Alaska Airlines pioneered use of the new technology in the mid-1990s to navigate through mountains and bad weather. Delta Air Lines Inc. uses the technology in Atlanta, and AMR Corp.'s American Airlines has been using it at DFW since about 2000.

Area navigation - or "required navigation performance," which also includes onboard alerting systems - lets pilots follow a more precise course by using sensors that guide the plane along a programmed route. Brian Will, an American Airlines pilot and manager of the carrier's Boeing 777 program, said he prefers it to being told by air traffic controllers when to turn.

"At DFW, we used to depart straight ahead and climb to 10,000 feet," Will said. "The longer you just go straight ahead and that's not where you're headed, you're just burning extra fuel until you can turn. Now I fly my route."

Will said the area navigation system, which is also in partial use at many other airports served by American, reduces the risk of dangerous confusion in voice communications between pilots and air traffic controllers.

Robert W. Reding, American's senior vice president of technical operations, said the simultaneous departure of American jets at DFW can increase by 14 to 20 percent the number of flights taking off when traffic backs up, as it does after weather delays.

"You don't have to navigate end point to end point, which will always add a lot of miles," Reding said. "If you have a straight line from Dallas to L.A., you'll clearly save some time and distance."