The Original NextGen RNP Approach Is Now More Than Twenty Years Old!

NextGen is a label, a brand name if you will. The name was created by FAA and industry more than a decade ago. The product this brand name is attached to is essentially an evolved technology system for air traffic control and navigation that reduces the jobs of controllers and pilots to one of monitoring what the automation is doing. That is to say, under NextGen, the flight procedures become so precisely proceduralized (defining exact altitudes, lat/long positions, and speeds) that pilots will not want to try and hand-fly the procedure as doing so would risk a violation… so they let the airplane computers do the actual flying.

For the entire last decade, FAA and industry (with a LOT of help from Congressional insiders like Bill Shuster) have been carefully coordinating what is effectively a propaganda campaign, and they keep pressing Congress with the idea that NextGen is something new. It is not. As far back as 1994, Alaska Airlines was allowed to develop the first RNP approach, at Juneau, where difficult weather and nearby mountainous terrain made FAA unable to develop approach procedures landing to the west (i.e., to Runway 26).

What Alaska did was apply pre-existing technologies built into their Boeing aircraft. As noted in a Spring 2008 article by David Nakamura in Boeing’s ‘Aero’ magazine“…all Boeing commercial airplanes manufactured since the 1980s include RNAV capabilities … Boeing began implementing RNP on airplanes in 1994 … (and) as of 2000, every Boeing commercial airplane included RNP capability.” Research Airbus and you will find a similar timeline for these new technologies. By the way, one of the principle authors of this Boeing article, David Nakamura, is a very significant person in the evolution of NextGen. He chaired the Performance-based Operations Aviation Rulemaking Committee (PARC) and authored a 4/21/2009 letter to Margaret (Peggy) Gilligan, an FAA Associate Administrator. Read the letter carefully to learn the strategies for NextGen implementation, as they existed more than seven years ago, in early 2009.

In other words, the airlines have had the capability of flying NextGen-type departure and arrival procedures for roughly two whole decades. In that timeframe, at the 35 primary U.S. airline airports (the OEP 35), the number of airline operations has declined by more than 20%. This has not stopped FAA from spinning the ‘new technology’ idea into billions of dollars worth of Congressional funding authorizations that in reality have produced little meaningful change from what Alaska started doing in the mid-1990s.

The Juneau RNP Runway 26 Approach

For reference, here are a couple maps (with links) showing the geography at Juneau.

(click on image to view source map at Bing)

(click on image to view source map at Bing)

(click on image to view source VFR sectional at FlightAware)

(click on image to view source VFR sectional at FlightAware)

Interestingly, a PDF copy of the approach procedure cannot be found online. Although Alaska has an ‘OK’ from FAA to fly this approach, it would appear that none of us are allowed to see what that exact procedure is; i.e., FAA considers the approach to be ‘proprietary’ for Alaska Airlines. Nonetheless, we can see what the approach looks like thanks to these two videos; the first is a video by Alaska of a passenger arrival during ‘nice’ weather, and includes use of a heads-up display and checklists; the second is what appears to be a very well-made simulation created by a gamer.