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No Extra Time: “Highways in the Sky” are Helping Brazilian Airlines Navigate Crowded Skies in Busy Times

In just two months some 600,000 fans from 31 countries and 3 million local tourists will turn Brazil’s airports into buzzing beehives.

Airports in large cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo are already running at capacity. “Our airspace looks like a ball of spaghetti,” Capt. Pedro Scorza, director of technical operations for Brazil’s GOL airlines told the Wall Street Journal. “The whole world will be looking for news from Brazil [during the World Cup]. If people end up saying the airspace is crowded, the flights are delayed, it’s a bad image.”

That’s why Brazil started deploying a next-generation digital navigation technology from GE that relies on GPS, optimized flight paths and computer systems in the cockpit, rather than ground-based radio beacons and other 20th century technology. It’s called Required Navigational Performance and allows air traffic controllers to slot more planes along a single route, and lets pilots and airlines design the most efficient flight plans.

These digital “highways in the sky” were conceived by Alaska Airlines pilot Steve Fulton and developed by GE Aviation’s Flight Efficiency Services business. Fulton says that pilots have been responding “very favorably” to it. “Everybody understands that this is the right way to be flying,” he says. “In the past we did not have the advantage of this type of precise flying. You really were guessing sometimes before this technology. It was an uncomfortable feeling.”

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RNP can guide pilots to landing along a smooth, precise, and fuel-efficient path in almost any weather. Top image: An RNP “highway in the sky” approach to Rio’s Santos Dumont airport.

Brazil’s national navigation service provider DECEA and airlines like GOL, Azul and others have started installing the system in aircraft cockpits and at 10 airports.

They include the Santos Dumont Airport in Rio, where GE deployed the first approach paths in 2012. “Santos Dumont is a dramatic downtown airport framed by the Sugarloaf and other mountains around Rio,” Fulton says. “That type of terrain gives us an opportunity to demonstrate the technology to the industry and regulators.”

Giovanni Spitale, general manager of Flight Efficiency Services, says that once the RNP paths are deployed, GE’s software and analytics can optimize routes, validate cost savings and identify additional areas for improvements. “The good news is that there are always better ways to operate and save fuel,” Spitale says.

WhyWeFly

Pilot Steve Fulton designed the first RNP system.

GE has completed more than 300 route installations in Canada, Australia, Malaysia, Peru, Chile, Brazil, and the US.

Some, like in Queenstown, New Zealand and in the Sichuan province in China, are quite spectacular. But most of the deployments are in areas where terrain is not a factor – the objectives are operational efficiency and minimizing the environmental impact of air traffic operations. (RNP is part of GE’s ecomagination program.)

GOL estimates that RNP could shave off 22 miles and 7.5 minutes per landing approach to the airport in the capital Brasilia, compared to conventional paths. It could also reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 1,620 pounds and deliver $24 million in operational savings over five years.

GOL’s Capt. Scorza told the WSJ that the system could save an average of 20 gallons of fuel, or $70, per flight on the busy route between Rio and Sao Paulo. “Multiply that by the number of flights, it’s a lot of savings,” he said.

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