IG: NextGen needs more efficient RNP procedures

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) needs to implement more efficient performance-based navigation procedures, clarify third-party rules, and assure that Required Navigation Performance (RNP) procedures can be used at congested airports. That was the gist of findings in a study by the Inspector General’s office of the Department of Transportation.

The FAA has implemented more than 600 RNAV and RNP procedures since 2005, but their quality and timeliness have come under question. Industry representatives asked the FAA to let third parties assist. The agency contracted with two companies in 2007 to develop and implement new RNP procedures but now the FAA says it will rely on its own resources rather than these third parties. Therefore, the report says, the role of these third parties remains unclear, as does the FAA’s strategy for implementing timely, high-value routes using in-house resources.

So far, the FAA has delivered mostly overlays of existing routes that do not provide shorter flight paths to alleviate alleged airspace congestion. According to the report, this is because the FAA has mostly focused on developing a targeted number of procedures each year and not measuring the benefits to users. Relieving congestion — which is expensive to the government and users — is a primary reason for the program.

The IG’s report says the FAA has not fully established an oversight program for third parties, defined the staffing levels needed to oversee them, or finalized key guidance to industry on qualifications to become a third-party developer. The FAA is also facing resistance to the third-party program within its own Air Traffic Organization (ATO) Office of Aviation Systems Standards. Without a coordinated oversight system in place, the report adds, the potential for operational and safety risks increases.

Another fault the report finds is that the FAA has not clearly communicated to either industry or the agency’s own personnel how and to what extent it will use third parties to implement new flight procedures.

The FAA’s published strategic plan states that it will produce 50 RNP procedures annually through 2012. There is no mention of how or whether it will share development responsibilities with third parties. The agency has not yet performed a detailed assessment of its in-house skill mix and expertise to determine whether it can design and deliver more efficient routes in a timely manner.

The report also says the FAA has met or exceeded these annual RNP production goals but most of the procedures it has deployed have been overlays of existing routes. While overlaid procedures can be deployed more quickly because they do not have to undergo extensive environmental reviews, they do not maximize the benefits that may be offered by direct flight paths.

Another difficulty the FAA is having is with air traffic control policies. The report cites as an example that in May 2007, the agency implemented 10 RNP procedures at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), but by the time the IG’s office conducted its study late in 2010, air controllers had never cleared an aircraft to land using these procedures. This is because current air traffic regulations do not allow for their use for simultaneous operations at certain airports with parallel runways.

The FAA has not fully laid the groundwork for successfully implementing the RNP procedures and the report declares that until the aircraft operators have confidence that the FAA can produce efficient RNAV and RNP procedures, they will be reluctant to make investments in equipment.

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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