American’s Flight Signals Larger GE, Boeing FAA Role

American Airlines Boeing 737 Jet
An American Airlines Boeing 737 jet. Photographer: Matt Nager/Bloomberg

An American Airlines flight today became the first in the U.S. to land using an approach designed by a private company, which may lead to a larger role for business in crafting routes for the government.

Flight 1916 from Dallas landed at Bradley International Airport near Hartford, Connecticut, at 12:14 p.m. local time, guided by procedures written by General Electric Co.’s Naverus unit. The flight shows companies can speed the redesign of routes, helping carriers save time and fuel, said Brian Will, director of airspace modernization at AMR Corp.’s American.

“We will use this all the time,” Will, who flew American’s Boeing Co. 737-800 to Connecticut, said of the landing approach in an interview. “It’s a benefit to us.”

GE’s Naverus and Boeing’s Jeppesen unit were authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2007 to redesign take-off and landing procedures available to any carriers, letting airlines navigate more precise routes using satellites. The effort is part of a $40 billion FAA plan dubbed NextGen to overhaul air-traffic control, which for decades has relied on ground-based radios and radar maintained by the FAA.

The agency had written 214 procedures for different routes, allowing carriers to use the new technology, as of July 29, said Laura Brown, an agency spokeswoman. GE’s Bradley approach and procedures by Boeing’s Jeppesen for the Savannah, Georgia, airport that take effect on Sept. 23, are the only approaches completed by private vendors, she said.

Representatives of Fairfield, Connecticut-based GE, the world’s largest producer of jet engines, and Chicago-based Boeing, the world’s second-largest commercial-jet maker, said they hope their designs lead regulators to direct more work to private companies.

Thousands Of Flights

“We’re looking at thousands of flight procedures ultimately as part of this upgrade,” said Steve Fulton, a GE technical fellow and co-founder of Naverus, bought by GE last year. “In order to do that work, having additional sources ultimately will be necessary.”

Boeing’s Jeppesen along with Naverus agreed with the FAA to fund one demonstration project, said Andy McDowell, Boeing’s director of airspace and airport services. As a next step, public funding to augment the FAA’s work “would be a great thing,” he said. “We haven’t seen any movement to that yet.”

Brown said the FAA’s policy is not to comment on possible work for vendors.

U.S. airlines forecast saving tens of millions of dollars on jet fuel by using satellite-based technology to avoid using radar and radio beacons, which can sometimes result in flights taking circuitous routes between airports.

Fewer Diversions

The procedures and technology may permit landings in weather that might otherwise force diversions. Will said that after Fort Worth, Texas-based American added the procedures in Quito, Ecuador, diversions fell to three in 2007 from 46 the previous year.

Southwest Airlines Co., which in 2007 announced a $175 million, six-year plan to retrofit planes and train pilots to fly with the technology, told Congress last year the procedures can reduce fuel burn and carbon emissions as much as 6 percent per flight.

Alaska Air Group Inc.’s Alaska Airlines, which has used the procedures since the mid-1990s, said this year it began using the technology at almost half of the airports it serves in Alaska, along with Washington, D.C.; Portland, Oregon; and Palm Springs, California. Alaska also said it was the only carrier with a fleet fully equipped to use the approaches.

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