You always hear people talking about NextGen when it comes to air traffic control. Oooh, sounds fancy, but what the heck is it? It’s a lot of different things, actually. But instead of trying to explain it, I thought it would be good to highlight individual benefits when they happen from time to time. The first in this series is with JetBlue and it involves a new approach at JFK that will allow the airline to fly more direct routes. This will save fuel, reduce flight times, and eventually keep airplanes away from Newark’s airspace.
Instead of my trying to explain this, why don’t I just embed this fine little video courtesy of the FAA.
If the weather is good today and airplanes are landing on runways 13L or 13R, then air traffic control can have airplanes use a more direct approach similar to what you see in the green. But what about when weather gets bad? Today, if the cloud ceiling gets below 800 feet or forward visibility is less than 2.5 miles, this approach won’t work because the current technology isn’t accurate enough to safely guide airplanes to the runway with that turn at the end of the approach. Instead, air traffic control routes airplanes way out toward Manhattan so they can do an ILS (instrument landing system) approach, which requires airplanes to come straight in.
This is a pain for a couple of reasons. First, it gets in the way of Newark’s airspace so that reduces the flow of traffic. Second, it wastes time and fuel by sending airplanes out of the way.
This new RNP (required navigation performance) approach is basically technology that allows something very similar to the visual approach to be done with enough precision that it can work in poor weather. On runway 13L, the ceiling can be 530 feet with visibility only 1.25 miles. On runway 13R, it can get down to 426 feet and 1.375 miles. (There are higher obstacles on 13L but less lighting for guidance on 13R, so that explains the discrepancy between the two.)
A JetBlue Problem
I tried to get info on how often this actually happens but nobody could give it to me. That’s a shame, because you would think it would really help the case. But there is one big problem here. This won’t really matter for traffic flow yet.
JetBlue has gone through all the hoops to get this done. It has installed equipment, been certified, trained pilots, etc. So it can now use this approach, but only on its A320s for now. The Embraer 190s will follow soon. But does that mean if ceilings drop to 600 feet that the airport can keep operating this way? Um, no. Because none of the other airlines operating at the airport are capable of doing this.
So until this can be used by most other airlines, Newark’s airspace will still be disrupted. Does that mean there’s no benefit? Not at all.
The Benefit Today
JetBlue can still take advantage of the quicker approach when the weather gets bad. It won’t help Newark much, but it will help JetBlue’s JFK fliers. Also, this is a Continuous Descent Approach, which means that from 3,000 feet all the way down, the airplane gradually descends to the runway. That means no leveling off, no spooling up, and it will save JetBlue a bunch of money in fuel. Of course, the spin is that this is also a “green” thing because less fuel equals a happy environment.
So here’s a tangible benefit from NextGen. It’s not quite as good as it will be once every airline can operate this way, but it gives you a glimpse at what might be possible. More accurate navigation means fuel savings, faster approaches, and more capacity in the system. We need more of this to happen yesterday.