It gets pretty cloudy in Juneau, Alaska. Constant overcast, plus the fact that the airport there is surrounded by mountains, has caused many flight delays and cancellations. Fifteen years ago Alaska Airlines (AA) came up with a better idea. The airline worked with the FAA and Boeing to design flight paths into the airport that curved instead of running in a straight line. What made this possible was the concept of “Required Navigation Performance,” or RNP, which lets jets fly closer to the mountains, even when the clouds obscured them.
The RNP guidance system, which has been around for a dozen years, is only now being introduced in the contiguous U.S. Alaska already has it, of course, as do parts of Australia, Canada, and China. What the FAA wants to do now is push RNP into America’s most flight-congested cities first, beginning with New York City and Chicago.
RNP is good news for the airlines. Not only will it cut minutes off flight times, it will cut noise pollution, and, most important, it will let airplanes land at almost the same rate in lousy weather as in nice weather. This is huge.
What most fliers don’t recognize is that airline economics are based on terribly inelastic business models. Inflexibility is the bane of any business. For airlines, it translates into having few controllable costs. Plane leases, labor costs, and jet fuel costs are fairly inflexible; and in many cases those costs are beyond the control of the airlines. So something like RNP is a tonic; it could not come at a better time. In fact, as new jets equipped with RNP avionics come on-stream and older planes are retired at an accelerated rate due to the recession, it becomes easier for airlines to integrate RNP into their fleets. RNP also helps airports that are under pressure to build more runways, because the way in which RNP precisely spaces aircraft for takeoffs and landings maximizes the use of current runway capacity.
RNP is actually more precise than satellite-based navigation routes, which are called RNAV. RNAV is already in use at a number of airports nationwide.
But for these navigational innovations to really benefit travelers, a couple of things have to happen. The FAA needs to fast-track the upgrade of its air traffic control systems at the big airports. And airlines need to continue to equip their older planes with the new systems, and train pilots to use them.
I continue to be amazed that the federal government hasn’t devoted greater resources to adopting these systems sooner. These are proven technologies to get planes from point A to point B faster, safer, with fewer delays, and with less noise and expense. Air travel is one of the key drivers of our economy. I can think of few things in the federal budget that are more critical than shortening lines, lowering costs, and cutting pollution. Imagine the impact on the business traveler just of, say, better on-time performance. For years we’ve been discussing the need for the FAA to overhaul the air traffic control system. It’s high time it became a priority.
Road Warrior • Miami • www.us.amadeus.com