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?
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 Instead, flying cars would simply levitate directly onto the highway, bypassing those crumbling and outdated on ramps.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 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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.