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Low angle view of a commercial airplane in flight, San Diego, Calif. (Getty Images)
Low angle view of a commercial airplane in flight, San Diego, Calif. (Getty Images)

Why the skies over the soccer World Cup will be faster and safer Add to ...

Brazil has installed a state-of-the art air-traffic system that will soon revolutionize airplane travel worldwide

Air travellers hate it when their flight is late because of congestion in the skies. So do pilots, airlines, air traffic controllers and airports, which is why there’s a big push toward the next generation of air traffic control.

Required Navigational Performance, or RNP, is a system that lets cockpit crews and ground control work together on the digital highway as well as the air lanes. Instead of relying on radio signals from beacons on the ground, which is the 20th-century method of air traffic management, RNP uses GPS systems and on-board computers.

This enables planes to chart their routes with pinpoint accuracy.  This summer’s soccer World Cup in Brazil is providing a high-profile stage on which to showcase just what this leading-edge technology can do.

The system was first conceived by Alaska Airways pilot Steve Fulton and tested back in 1996. Now it’s being installed ever more widely.

Brazil has been installing a system, designed by GE’s Flight Efficiency Services business. RNP is being put in at 10 airports, to be ready for 600,000 international soccer fans and 3 million local tourists who will descend in June for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The technology includes software being installed in cockpits of GOL and Azul airlines and the Brazilian air navigation service, DECEA.

The World Cup and the spectacular Brazilian landscape provide opportunity to showcase RNP, Mr. Fulton says. “That type of terrain gives us an opportunity to demonstrate the technology to the industry and regulators.”

 “An RNP-equipped aircraft’s on-board performance monitoring and alerting system ensures that the position is correct to an assurance of 99.999 per cent,” says Jeff Cochrane, Communications Service Design Manager at Nav Canada, the federal air traffic control authority.  “Flight paths can be designed that are more efficient, since they can be placed closer to fixed obstacles or other aircraft, while maintaining the same level of safety assurance.”

Tower-based point-to-point navigation can require a plane to zigzag over its route to stay in communication with ground towers. RNP uses the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), which is constantly being upgraded, enabling straighter routes. In addition to optimizing flight paths, RNP allows more planes to travel on a single path. The software and analytics can also optimize routes, provide data on cost savings and point to further areas for improvement.

It’s a boon to an industry, which, at the peak of a typical busy day over Canada’s skies, has about 1,000 instrument-guided planes in the air at any given time. Writing in Aviation International News in 2013, writer John Sheridan said that, “It is becoming more and more likely that in coming histories of aviation, the key major milestones will include the introduction of jet aircraft, the widespread adoption of satellite positioning and the arrival of [RNP].”

Mr. Cochrane says the 99.999-per-cent assurance means that a plane is within two nautical miles of where the technology says it is, much more accurate than traditional air-to-ground navigation. This accuracy improves safety as well as takeoff and landing scheduling.

In Canada, WestJet is the leader in RNP navigation, says David Deere, that airline’s Standards Pilot in charge of flight and technical operations. Air Canada is catching up; Mr. Deere says the two carriers are working closely together with Nav Canada on the technical rules that will let airport runways be authorized for RNP flight.

Aircraft approaches using RNP are already allowed at 353 airports in Canada, and this fall, Calgary International Airport will become the country’s first to have all runways allowing RNP use. As in Brazil, RNP helps in flying over rugged terrain, allowing pilots to execute final approaches that are curved as well as straight.

While RNP is sophisticated technology, it doesn’t require a lot of equipment. “Every aircraft that flies needs two GPS systems, two computers, two inertial reference systems and a ground proximity warning system,” Mr. Deere says.

It allows for quieter landing too, he adds, because with better positioning accuracy, planes can approach on idle power settings.

And, says Nav Canada, it’s cheaper in the long term and better for the environment. The agency says that by 2020, it is estimated that RNP procedures will save airlines (and presumably, paying passengers) approximately $132-million in fuel costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 351,000 metric tons.

For more innovation insights, visit www.gereports.ca

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's advertising department, in consultation with GE. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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