Air traffic control modernization program takes step forward

American Airlines jet lands using new satellite-based technology designed to replace FAA's decades-old radar systems, an advance that could allow carriers to fly in poor weather and save fuel.

The Federal Aviation Administration reached a milestone on Thursday in its massive program to upgrade the nation's air traffic control system when an American Airlines jet landed in Hartford, Conn., using an advanced satellite navigation technology and not the traditional decades-old radar system.

The new technology, called required navigation performance, was developed by Naverus, a division of GE Aviation, and for the first time is available for other airlines on a specific flight path to the Hartford airport. RNP is a core component of the NextGen airspace modernization program, an ambitious plan to replace the nation's aging radar-based air traffic control system with a network of satellites by 2020.

RNP relies on space-based communications rather than ground-based radar beacons, which often degrade over time, to show air traffic controllers the location and altitude of aircraft. The new technology reduces flight time and provides better fuel economy. One of the more significant advantages is it will "get aircraft from Point A to Point B safer and more efficiently than before," said Paul Takemoto, an FAA spokesman.

The flight to Bradley International Airport in Hartford was designed to test how the technology provided a precise path to the pilots flying American Airlines flight 1916, which landed on runway 15. RNP allowed the jet to approach the airport on a more direct approach versus the older radar technology, which typically requires aircraft to fly a route that resembles a zigzag pattern, Takemoto said.

RNP also enables planes to land during periods of low clouds and reduced visibility -- an advance that could help ease air traffic by reducing the number of delayed or canceled flights. (Watch a video that shows the differences in approaches between RNP and traditional radar-based systems.)

At the Hartford airport, planes cannot land when the cloud ceiling is lower than 1,000 feet. With RNP, however, they can land if the ceiling is as low as 350 feet.

RNP is currently in use at nearly 185 airports nationwide, but those systems were not designed by a private company for use by any air carrier, as the Bradley airport system was for this American Airlines flight. "That's the milestone for helping move the dial on NextGen," said American Airlines spokeswoman Courtney Wallace.

Now that it's publicly available, any airline equipped with the proper compatible technology can use RNP, which requires a designated route, on flights from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to Bradley. It's unclear why RNP developers chose to make the technology available for that flight path first, but it is a route American Airlines customarily flies. Airports also must have the required technology to use RNP, and flight paths must be approved by the FAA for safety.

"Over the next 20 years, airspace and airlines around the world will fundamentally change from how we operate today," Capt. Brian Will, American Airlines' director of airspace modernization and advanced technologies who landed the jet using RNP at the Bradley airport, said in a prepared statement. "This new procedure is a critical step to help implement NextGen modernization."

Some airlines have developed their own RNP flight paths, which, while approved by FAA, are specific to those airlines and are not available for other carriers flying the same route.

Southwest Airlines plans to have installed RNP technology on all its jets by the end of the year, said company spokesman Paul Flannigan. It's a process that not only airlines must go through, but airports and dispatchers as well, he added.