Archive for January, 2014

Victor airways are obsolete

Friday, January 24th, 2014
For decades, Victor airways have enabled navigation across the National Airspace System. These “highways in the sky” serve as the skeleton of our navigation infrastructure, connecting hundreds of VORs through a spider web of routes crisscrossing the country. But half of the VORs anchoring these airways are about to be decommissioned. How will we get from point A to point B without Victor airways?

Airways

In reality, Victor airways don’t really get us from Point A to Point B. They usually dogleg through Points C, D, and E. In some cases, the dogleg detours traffic around special use airspace, terrain, or conflicting instrument procedures. These airways are also subject to the physical location of the ground based equipment supporting the VOR. Real estate, terrain, and service volumes dictate less than optimal locations resulting in a network of Victor airways that work, but aren’t quite optimized.

 

Why Victor airways are nearing obsolescence

The FAA is on a path to reduce the network of VORs by about half in the coming years as part of the Minimum Operating Network, or MON. Because Victor airways must begin and end at a VOR, a reduction of hundreds of VORs means thousands of Victor airways will need to be modified. The FAA is already decommissioning some VORs due to natural disasters or significant equipment failures. When a VOR is decommissioned, the FAA must modify all of the associated instrument procedures like approaches, arrivals, departures, and airways. In most cases, the FAA simply replaces the VOR with a GPS waypoint to retain the airway. While this preserves the existing capabilities (at least for GPS-equipped aircraft), it does nothing to improve the access and efficiency of the airspace.

As part of the broader transition to NextGen, the FAA is promoting smarter, more efficient airspace. Simply replacing a VOR with a GPS waypoint does not leverage the benefits of satellite navigation. The FAA needs a strategy to replace Victor airways with more efficient satellite navigation. Click here to Tweet this thought.

We need an airway transition policy

Imagine the Federal government decided to demolish every on ramp and off ramp for the entire Interstate highway system. Instead, flying cars would simply levitate directly onto the highway, bypassing those crumbling and outdated on ramps. The problem is, if cars can fly, it renders the highways obsolete. This is how the FAA is currently approaching VOR decommissioning and the Victor airway network.

Instead of developing workarounds like GPS waypoints replacing VORs, the FAA needs to approach navigation infrastructure with a fresh approach. Do pilots really need to be restricted to airway navigation in uncongested airspace away from major metropolitan areas and high-density jet traffic? Wouldn’t point to point navigation be more efficient, decreasing workload for both pilot and controller?

There was once a plan called Free Flight. Pilots would take off, point their airplane at the destination, and away they’d go. If another aircraft was encountered en route, the planes would simply alter course a little bit to avoid each other’s buffer zone. While Free Flight has been largely abandoned, satellite navigation promises to get us closer to Free Flight than ever before. But we have to find a way to free ourselves from the constraints of Victor airways.

AOPA Advocacy

AOPA has been working closely with industry partners and the FAA on the VOR reduction process. We are advocating for a criteria-based approach that ensures a robust network of VORs capable of serving as a backup for GPS. Under the MON, pilots will be able to revert back to VOR navigation and land at an airport within 100 nm. We also want to ensure that pilots have an opportunity to review and comment on individual NAVAIDs. But this doesn’t address the day-to-day navigation needs under a system based on satellite navigation.

AOPA will be formally asking the FAA to convene and industry stakeholder committee to assist the FAA in developing a strategy and policy for transitioning from Victor airways to a system based on satellite navigation.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on an airway transition policy. What challenges do you see, and how would you like the future of navigation infrastructure to take shape?

Sneak Peek

Be sure to check back next week when I’ll write about AOPA’s advocacy efforts regarding the FAA’s plan to reduce the VOR network by 50%. What are your concerns with the planned reduction in VORs? Leave a comment below or send an email to airtrafficservices@aopa.org.

The most exciting part of my workday

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

Every day, Monday through Friday, excepting Federal holidays, the National Archives and Records Administration publishes the Federal Register. It is an exhaustive listing of proposed regulations, policies, and more for the entire federal government. Perhaps I exaggerated this article’s title a bit. The Federal Register is not (usually) the most exciting part of my day. But it does contain very important information and shapes much of my workload for the weeks and months ahead.

Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

The Federal Government’s Journal

The Federal Register is described as the daily journal of the United States Federal Government. It was established by Congress through the Federal Register Act with the goal of addressing a growing government and a proliferation of agencies issuing regulations. The Federal Register allows agencies to promulgate and enforce federal regulations. If you’re interested in learning more about the Federal Register, the National Archives and Records Administration hosts an online course detailing everything you would ever want to know about the Federal Register.

How AOPA uses the Federal Register

Everyone in the Government Affairs department reads through the Federal Register each morning to see what actions are being considered or proposed. While the document is categorized by agency, aviation is subject to regulatory burdens beyond the FAA. Consider the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) recent decision to restrict overflight of National Marine Sanctuaries. The notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) was listed in the Federal Register under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which oversees the ONMS.

So really, we need to review the entire Federal Register for activities that have the potential of impacting general aviation. The Table of Contents alone is around 15 pages each day. From that, I may investigate anywhere from 3 to 10 announcements that have caught my eye. Most turn out to be harmless, routine, or not applicable to general aviation.

When I do find something that pertains to general aviation, it sets a lot of things in motion. Depending on the nature of the announcement, it could mean the beginning of months of work.

What happens when something is found

The first thing I do is analyze the proposal to understand exactly what the issue is, and start to determine how it may impact (positively or negatively) general aviation. I share a summary of the issue with my colleagues and map out our path forward for a response. One of the first actions is to submit a communications request, or comms request, which is AOPA’s internal mechanism for generating articles for our digital publications like the website or ePilot.

I may collaborate with industry partners or contacts at the FAA to gain additional insight or information as I begin to sketch out AOPA’s draft comments in response to the announcement. Depending on the issue, we may also notify and solicit input from our regional managers and affected Airport Support Network Volunteers (ASNVs). I use this input to refine our final comments and prepare for submission. If it is a particularly significant or groundbreaking issue, we will often run a second article sharing AOPA’s comments and reminding members to submit comments of their own.

There are a lot of steps and a lot of lead time needed to ultimately submit comments that are insightful and substantive. That is why we often request a comment period extension. It is not necessarily to slow down the process, but to allow us sufficient time to do all the leg work in preparation of submitting comments. The Federal Register is not very user friendly. Most pilots are not reading the Federal Register themselves. Instead, they rely on organizations like the AOPA to digest the information, summarize the important points, and alert them to significant items.

Have you ever submitted comments?

The Federal Register is important, but the comments submitted in response are crucial. Many of the decisions or policies proposed by the FAA and other agencies are made in a vacuum with little or no input from the general public. Submitting comments is our chance to shape the regulatory and operating environment. Have you ever submitted comments to an NPRM or other Federal Register announcement? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!