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Peak Performance: Data System Rules the Sky at 2-Mile High Airport

Some travelers landing at the Jiuzhai Huanglong Airport in China’s mountainous Sichuan province say their ears don’t pop. At 11,311 feet, Jiuzhai is the third highest airport in China, nestled among jagged, snow-capped peaks of the Min Shan mountain range.

Airports in this part of China used to be infamous for weather delays, cancellations and tortuous landing approaches. But that changed in 2011, when Jiuzhai rolled out a new GE aircraft navigation system called required navigation performance (RNP).

Before RNP, much of western China was “effectively beyond the range of reliable air travel,” wrote James Fallows, an aviation reporter and China expert. “Navigation was so difficult that planes would often fly only in clear, calm weather – and the weather was rarely clear and calm.”

Not anymore. RNP relies on GPS satellite data, rather than radio beacons that cannot penetrate rocky hillsides. RNP can guide pilots to landing along a precise, fuel-efficient path in almost any weather. The Jiuzhai flight paths have been so successful that China’s FAA equivalent, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), recently expanded the use of the technology to all 11 commercial airlines flying to the airport. GE will also deploy at Jiuzhai another new technology that links RNP to ground-based instrument landing systems used by air traffic controllers during poor weather. This technology will make smooth descents possible in most conditions.

Alaska Airlines pilot and GE “technical fellow” Steve Fulton and partners started developing RNP in the 1990s. Today, dozens of airlines and airports, from Lima, Peru, to Portland, Ore., are using GE’s RNP to optimize flight routes and reduce fuel burn, emissions, and noise. GE studied the impact of the technology at 46 mid-size U.S. airports including St. Louis, Mo., Austin, Texas, and Salt Lake City, Utah. The research found that RNP could save almost 750 days in flight delays, 13 million gallons of fuel, and 275 million pounds in carbon dioxide emissions.

GE engineers are now exploring ways to harvest even more data and link RNP to the Industrial Internet, a robust network of computers, machines and sensor that combines connectivity with advanced software analytics and low-cost data gathering. They are developing algorithms that can collect and analyze data and information about wind speeds, the position, type and flight patterns of nearby aircraft, and the availability of landing slots at the destination airport. The system will allow pilots to check in for a landing slot after take-off and then cruise at the most efficient altitude to arrive at the right time.

Airlines will be able to keep their planes in peak performance on top of the world, and anywhere else.

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