Airlines to Save Millions in Efficient Houston Airspace

New flight routes into and out of Houston based on navigation technology from a $42 billion U.S. air-traffic modernization project will save airlines millions of dollars in fuel in one of the program’s first measurable results.

Using satellite guidance adopted as part of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen project, airlines will cut fuel consumption by as much as 3 million gallons a year, which would reduce carbon emissions by 31,000 metric tons (68 million pounds), the agency said today in a release.

The shorter flights are part of the U.S. effort to accommodate more traffic at over-crowded airports and help them rebound quicker after weather-related delays. The fuel savings are among the first concrete improvements from NextGen, which uses GPS-based navigation and Internet-like communications with aircraft to make flying safer and more efficient. The project is being phased in through 2025.

“We are seeing an immediate effect,” said Andrew LeBovidge, a regional chief of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union.

The new routes and procedures became operational May 29 and have been used most days since then, LeBovidge said. He works at FAA’s Houston Center, which guides flights in the southern half of Texas.

New York

“The NextGen Metroplex we are implementing today is an example for the entire country -- of the difference we can make with the help of the federal government and the way we get it done -- six months ahead of schedule,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in the release.

In addition to Houston, the FAA is rerouting flights in more than a dozen other metro areas with heavy airline traffic, including Atlanta, North Texas and Washington.

A similar program is also under way to untangle New York’s three airports, which produce the most airline delays in the nation, according to Transportation Department data. The region had 1.2 million landings and takeoffs in 2013, the most in the nation, according to FAA data.

The Houston project was selected by President Barack Obama as one of 14 high-priority infrastructure projects that were put on a fast track for completion. The agency initially planned to complete the project in three years. It was finished six months early.

Saving Fuel

Houston’s George Bush International and Hobby airports had more than 700,000 landings and takeoffs last year, making it the seventh busiest metropolitan region in the U.S., according to the FAA.

One of the ways of saving fuel is to give planes a continuous descent allowing them to glide using minimal power from over 30,000 feet (9,100 meters) to within a few thousand feet of the ground, according to the FAA. Under older procedures, an airliner arriving at most airports would be instructed to descend and level off several times, using more fuel than needed.

Another way the FAA gained efficiency in Houston was to allow planes to fly precise routes made possible by the global positioning satellite system, according to the release. Those routes allow planes to fly shorter distances to the runway, saving fuel.

Airline Endorsements

Under NextGen, aircraft use GPS to establish their own position and then broadcast that to other aircraft and the ground, which is a more accurate way of tracking planes than radar. The GPS also allows planes to repeatedly fly the same track, allowing the FAA to create the more efficient routes.

The Houston initiative was endorsed by Southwest Airlines Co. and United Continental Holdings Inc. United Airlines uses Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport as a hub.

“This redesigned airspace allows us to take full advantage of technology we already have on our aircraft, while simultaneously reducing fuel burn and emissions,” Jim Compton, United’s vice chairman and chief revenue officer, said in the FAA release.

The controllers association also applauded the changes, President Paul Rinaldi said in the release. The union worked on the upgrade with the agency, Rinaldi said.

Aircraft Noise

The FAA’s effort to untangle flight routes in busy metropolitan areas has at times run into complaints about aircraft noise. Even if total noise in a region is reduced, rerouting flights can concentrate aircraft sounds over some neighborhoods. Residents in New York’s Queens Borough have raised objections to new flight tracks for departures from LaGuardia Airport.

The FAA has completed a network of ground receivers in the U.S. that track planes using the satellite-based system, the agency said in a press release in April. The system was built under a contract with McLean, Virginia-based Exelis Inc.

Most aircraft must install the satellite tracking equipment, known as ADS-B, by 2020.

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