NextGen Creates New Vision in the Gulf of Mexico

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.

Helicopters that operate between the U.S. Gulf Coast and the offshore oil platforms that dot the Gulf of Mexico are operating more efficiently and safely today through one of the earliest implementations of a flagship NextGen initiative, the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) system.

Up until 2009, controllers working the large amounts of helicopter traffic near the Gulf of Mexico needed to space the aircrafts far apart, relying on verbal communication and large separation between the flights to ensure safe movement since radar coverage did not extend into the Gulf. Without that coverage, air traffic controllers were essentially blind once the helicopters got over open water.

That problem ceased when the FAA activated ADS-B in the Gulf of Mexico. The new technology provided satellite-based tracking of the helicopters and oil platforms that were now visible across the Gulf.

When using ADS-B, aircraft position data are relayed from the aircraft to ground receivers and then to the Houston Center. There, it is combined with radar data, and controllers are able to monitor helicopter positions and provide safer and more efficient services over the Gulf of Mexico airspace.

What has that done to helicopter operations in the Gulf?

Before ADS-B, Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) departures from Gulf Coast heliports often experienced long delays due to the large separation requirements of non-radar airspace. Using ADS-Bs reduced separation standards, controllers can integrate the same flights into traffic flows much faster than they could in the past, reducing departure delays significantly. In addition, helicopter operators can manage their trajectories more efficiently, which translates into fuel savings, lower fuel requirements and increased payloads (including personnel and equipment). The improvements create opportunities for more multi-leg trips to reach multiple oil platforms before returning to shore. Such trips are also enabled by improved weather information disseminated by stations deployed on oil rigs, another feature of the ADS-B deployment.

Providing for more efficient air traffic management, the enhanced capabilities in the Gulf region have also provided for improved Search and Rescue operations.

ADSBs significant improvement in surveillance information takes the "Search" out of "Search and Rescue." The capability provides position reports at least twice a minute, and therefore far exceeds the update rate enabled by conventional procedures. Search and Rescue procedures are initiated after two consecutive position reports are missed. Current response time for emergency situations has decreased from more than 90 minutes to just a few minutes.