Can changing the flight paths of planes help reduce delays, cut carbon emissions, and save airlines billions? General Electric thinks so. Today, an American Airlines plane completed the inaugural flight of GE's new system, which utilizes Required Navigation Performance (RNP) technology. It's part of the FAA's Next Generation Air Transportation, a plan to modernize the country's flight system by 2025.
Many companies are racing to perfect RNP, and each has their own version. Honeywell's SmartPath landing system uses GPS to precisely control a plane's speed, altitude, and approach. An airline in Alaska has implemented a satellite-assisted landing pattern system, using a "series of stair-step descents" to lower planes from high altitudes along shorter routes. Such flight path modifications can significantly reduce energy consumption—in Alaska, RNP has reduced the airline's emissions by 35%.
GE's system lets pilots follow "gently curving paths" that match the curvature of the Earth, eliminating "inefficient straight-line" paths, which burn more fuel and emissions. More direct trajectories and optimized descents will help reduce air traffic.
Developed under its aviation wing Naverus, GE's system is specifically designed to target airport congestion. Just 35 airports handle 80% of domestic flights. The FAA estimates that its current air traffic control system won't be able to sustain the 50% increase in airplanes and passengers expected by 2015. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions from planes have increased by 80% in the last few years. A modernized flight path system is essential to mitigating these problems.
To reach the FAA's 2025 goal, however, RNP technology must become ubiquitous. GE's plan is the first commercially-designed and publicly available RNP flight path system in the U.S. — and the technology has a long journey ahead of it.