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Performance Success Stories

Ocean Flying Becoming a Breeze with NextGen

  • Oceanic flights generate 31 percent of passenger revenue and 40 percent of cargo revenue in U.S.-controlled airspace
  • New NextGen procedures will allow aircraft to move through oceanic flight lanes to reach optimal, fuel-saving altitudes
Controllers are able to navigate pilots to cruising altitudes in a faster manor because of new technology that provides greater surveillance.

NextGen Update

NextGen Implementation Plan (PDF)

Separation Management
Provides controllers with tools to manage aircraft in a mixed environment of varying navigation equipment and wake performance capabilities.

It might seem like nothing much happens during a long flight over the ocean while passengers settle in to watch movies, read or sleep. But as wind and weather changes en route, the pilots and air traffic controllers use NextGen to steer the aircraft to the most efficient route and altitude.

A single oceanic flight can consume 300,000 pounds of fuel. When an aircraft deviates from an optimum altitude by as little as 1,000 feet, it can consume an additional 1 percent of fuel, according to research conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Multiply that by 10 or more hours and it adds up.

"The FAA's oceanic air traffic control system supports aircraft getting from point A to B as quickly and efficiently as possible and enables the airlines to reduce operating costs," said John Moore, manager of the FAA's Advanced Technology and Oceanic Procedures program.

Oceanic flights generate 31 percent of air carrier passenger revenue and 40 percent of cargo revenue in U.S.-controlled airspace.

Modernization of air traffic control over the world's oceans has improved safety, efficiency and reduced environmental impact in many ways. At the center of these improvements is the FAA's Ocean21 automation system, which lets controllers know what each aircraft is capable of doing, its exact location, its intended flight path and any potential future conflicts.

The FAA is upgrading Ocean21 with NextGen technologies to give pilots the flexibility to cut through prescribed oceanic "flight lanes" to the fastest routes and altitudes where winds and colder temperatures help reduce the amount of fuel needed. The FAA plans to make those capabilities available by 2015. The NextGen efficiency improvements being realized now over the oceans are an example of the goals for high-altitude NextGen improvements throughout the airspace system.

NextGen also enables controllers to more efficiently separate airplanes. Because there is no radar surveillance over the ocean, aircraft flying at the same altitude previously had to be separated by 10 minutes, or about 80-100 nautical miles. With satellite-based navigation procedures that rely on GPS positioning and other navigation sensors, aircraft now can safely fly as few as 30 nautical miles apart, depending on how they are equipped.

The old separation distance between flights made it difficult for aircraft to get cleared to change altitude; moving up or down puts the planes too close to one another. The FAA is developing a NextGen capability that would allow aircraft equipped with Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) to safely ascend or descend through the oceanic flight lanes at reduced separation.

A screen in the cockpit of aircraft with ADS-B displays the location of other ADS-B-equipped aircraft nearby. After coordinating with controllers, the pilot can receive clearance to climb or descend safely through one or more flight levels even when other aircraft are as close as 15 nautical miles or no more than 2,000 feet above or below.

The FAA is gathering data from demonstrations of this capability in collaboration with United Airlines and US Airways.

The FAA is collaborating with Delta Air Lines, United, UPS, All Nippon Airways, Air New Zealand and Qantas Airways on a capability that enables airline dispatchers to input a proposed route that Ocean21 then analyzes for possible conflicts. This makes it more likely that controllers will be able to approve pilots' requests. If the proposed route is not available right away, an additional NextGen upgrade will continue to check and notify the controller when it is.

These requests can be made via electronic message using data link, a capability similar to Data Communications. Controllers run the requests through Ocean21 computers and then electronically pass on their instructions to the cockpit. Then, with the push of a button, the pilot loads the new route into the aircraft's navigation system.

That means quicker response time to pilot requests. At the FAA's Oakland Center, which manages airspace over the Pacific Ocean covering nearly 10 percent of the earth's surface, controllers now respond in two minutes or less, down from around five minutes.

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