NextGen Creates New Paths Over Gulf of Mexico

Highlights:
  • JetBlue aircraft equipped with Automatic Dependent Surveillance — Broadcast (ADS-B), a key NextGen technology, can take advantage of more direct routes over the Gulf of Mexico.
  • When other flights have to divert around thunderstorms in the Gulf, ADS-B-equipped JetBlue flights maintain direct routes to Fort Lauderdale, saving time and fuel.
A NextGen route from Los Angeles to Florida is shown on a map next to a conventional route.
Conventional NextGen
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NAS Infrastructure
Includes: Aeronautical Common Service, Communications Common Service, Flight Common Service, Surveillance Common Service, and Weather Common Service.

As passengers dozed on a Jet Blue redeye from Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale, a 200-mile line of thunderstorms loomed along the Florida coast. The flight would normally require a long reroute to the north and around the severe weather, delaying the expected pre-dawn landing. But with NextGen technology on board, all that was needed was a slight diversion to the south and the passengers landed on time.

No other part of the nation has more thunderstorm activity than Florida, according to the Florida State University Florida Climate Center. In the western half of the peninsula in a typical year, there are more than 80 days with thunder and lightning.

There are radar coverage gaps offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, so air traffic controllers cannot normally track aircraft continuously with the necessary precision to enable such slight diversions to the south. A thunderstorm, like the one on that early September morning, would normally require controllers to reroute the flight to the north over the Florida panhandle where there is radar coverage. This abrupt left turn around the thunderstorms would add about 15 minutes to the trip and cause the airliner to burn an extra 60 gallons of jet fuel, said Joseph Bertapelle, JetBlue's director of Strategic Airspace Programs. This would also pump an additional 1,200 pounds of exhaust emissions into the atmosphere.

This JetBlue flight, however, was equipped with Automatic Dependent Surveillance — Broadcast (ADS-B), a NextGen technology that transmits the aircraft's position to radio stations on the ground — or in the case of the Gulf of Mexico, ADS-B radio stations installed on offshore oil rigs — every second. ADS-B has position-accuracy within a few feet -- much more accurate than radar tracking. Additionally, radar can only track aircraft up to about 200 miles offshore.

As the Jet Blue Flight approached the severe weather, the controller directed the pilots over the Gulf to avoid the thunderstorm and had the technology to see the aircraft the entire time.

JetBlue is participating in an FAA effort to demonstrate how ADS-B can make operations more efficient. The operator flies two round-trip flights a day between Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale. This flight, and scores of others like it during the summer and fall of 2013, was made possible because the airline invested early in ADS-B equipment for some of its aircraft. The JetBlue reroutes create a template for future ADS-B-only flights, not only for JetBlue but for other airlines.

A lot of airlines look at NextGen from the standpoint of what it can do for the pilots, but "I take NextGen from the perspective of what can it do for JetBlue," said Bertapelle. "I consider what the NextGen capability is and how I can use it to run my airline's schedule better."

Bertapelle plans to continue to explore ADS-B tracking over the Gulf of Mexico and hopes to do the same for JetBlue's Caribbean routes soon.