A 'Win-Win' at Jackson Hole

Highlights:
  • Aircraft flying the new NextGen procedure at Jackson Hole Airport save just over four nautical miles in flight, compared to the traditional approach.
  • For aircraft equipped to fly the procedure, this means a 4-7 minute reduction in flight time.
  • The NextGen procedure makes the approach to the airport safer and avoids noise-sensitive areas in the Grand Teton National Park.

NextGen technologies allow pilots to fly precision routes in mountainous areas.

NextGen Implementation Plan Portfolio Read More...

Performance Based Navigation (PBN)
Addresses ways to leverage emerging technologies, such as satellite-based Area Navigation and Required Navigation Performance, to improve access and flexibility for point-to-point operations.

When you land at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, you land at one of the most scenic airports in the world. The airport is nestled in the valley between the tall peaks of the Teton mountain range and is entirely located in the Grand Teton National Park. But for arriving flights, which turn onto a narrow approach path between the mountains and descend to a short runway at a high elevation, it is one of the most demanding places to land in the United States.

In the winter, when thousands of tourists arrive to hit the powdery ski-slopes, up to 10 feet of snow can accumulate in the mountains and up to five feet in the valley. Turbulence and mountain-wave air formations are also common. In the summer, tourists arrive to enjoy the wilderness experience of the Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. But high temperatures and the airport's elevation create "hot and high" conditions that require increased airspeeds, which also increase the risk of overshooting the runway.

"There is no margin for error, no latitude for a single mistake on these approaches, or in the landing environment," said Richard (Rick) Schmidt, Jackson Hole Airport tower manager. "We have heavy weather [November to April], with deteriorated runway braking conditions."

In March 2013, the FAA provided a NextGen solution: a satellite-based precision procedure that makes the landing path to Jackson Hole both safer and shorter for equipped aircraft.

The new procedure, which keeps aircraft on a tightly-defined track along a smooth, curved path, provides a safety cushion between the approach path and the higher terrain to the west, said Wayne VanDeGraaff, support manager for Airspace and Procedures at FAA's Salt Lake City Air Route Traffic Control Center. The Center controls traffic into Jackson Hole, which does not have radar coverage.

The new approach also avoids the noise-sensitive areas in the national park, while aircraft using the traditional approach cut into a noise containment area, said Ray Bishop, Jackson Hole Airport director. The new, curved approach is a "win-win situation for the aviation and environment communities," he said.

Aviation's wins continue to emerge at Jackson Hole. FAA analyses indicate aircraft flying the new procedure save just over four nautical miles in flight, compared to the traditional approach, which uses navigation equipment installed on the ground at the airport. For operators equipped to fly the procedure, this means a 4-7 minute reduction in flight time, depending on the aircraft, said Bishop. Less flight time translates to fuel savings and reduced emissions.

Data gathering to determine precise savings is ongoing. A wide variety of aircraft—with diverse airspeeds and fuel burns—operate at the airport.

"[Benefits] estimates vary widely because the approach is so new," said Kim Harrower, a corporate pilot who regularly operates a single-engine turboprop aircraft into Jackson Hole. "The shorter the route is, the less expensive it is. Even if I can get in visually I will sometimes take the approach simply because it is shorter," he added.

While only about 10 percent of aircraft flying into Jackson Hole are equipped to fly the new approach, increased use is expected as new aircraft, which already have the appropriate equipment built in, begin to be used, said Bishop.

"The RNP approach will also be an excellent alternative" in the event the ground-based navigation equipment fails or if environmental conditions, such as heavy snowfall, preclude the use of the traditional approach, noted Captain Brian Will, American Airlines director of Airspace Modernization and Advanced Technologies.