NextGen holds tremendous operational potential, but one of the as-of-yet unproven elements of this investment in technology by the FAA and the system users is the private sector’s return on investment. Thus, the announcement by Bill Ayers (pictured), chair of Alaska Air Group, that his company can report that Required Navigation Performance has produced a “decent payback” is indeed good news.
Alaska is the first US carrier to equip all of its aircraft with RNP and to train its pilots to use this sophisticated guidance system. Its decision to take the lead on this technology may have been influenced by that fact that it flies in some of the most demanding terrain and of the most difficult weather conditions. Mr. Ayers’ numbers were most compelling: in 2011 Alaska flew 12,700 approaches and departures; the RNP allowed some 1,545 operations which would have otherwise been prohibited due to minimums!
The unusual conditions in Alaska may increase the benefits of RNP return calculations. For operators without frequent fog and the treacherous topography, the capital investment may not be as easy to justify. Alaska’s being the first to implement and operate RNP may complicate the FAA’s consideration (as required by the Reauthorization Bill) of incentives for equipping the NextGen technology (http://www.faabuzz.com/2012/05/faa-to-explore-incentives-for-nextgen-aircraft-equipment/). In that this carrier has already invested the dollars needed for RNP, it becomes increasingly difficult to reward past actions.
Equally problematic are the slowness of implementing RNP procedures at airports (particularly at congested facilities) and the reported reluctance of controllers to use or offer to pilots these available more precise, safer and fuel/noise conserving patterns. As long as these issues linger, the equation for deciding to invest in the RNP technology has too many unknown variables. It is time for FAA and NATCA to weigh in on this issue if the success being experienced by Alaska Airlines is to be realized by other airspace users throughout the NAS.