“Here’s a bit of welcome bad news.” That was the first sentence in a recent New York Times editorial on the airline industry’s long-awaited recovery from the September 2001 terrorist attacks — and the congestion that resulted from the increased traffic.
Before the terrorist attacks, the Times pointed out, airports were overloaded, restrictions were being imposed on certain new flights “and travelers were in a constant state of frustration.” To prevent a recurrence of the bad old days, the Times reported, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has come to an agreement with American and United Airlines to reduce the by 5 percent number of peak-hour flights at the nation’s busiest airport, O’Hare in Chicago.
But that is only a temporary — and not very economically sound — fix, since a reduction of 35 flights per day by United and 27 by American will only add to the frustration air travelers are feeling and exacerbate the financial problems of America’s largest air carriers. The Times, however, was right to identify airway congestion as a legitimate — and growing — problem.
The good news for frequent fliers and family-vacation travelers alike is that help is on the way. The FAA has several projects in the works to address this problem. Most important is a new rule, scheduled to go into effect next Jan. 20, that will increase air capacity and reduce delays.
The new flight standard is known as the domestic reduced vertical separation minimum, or DRVSM for short.
Don’t let the technological tongue-twister of a name scare you away, because DRVSM is one of the most promising developments in air travel in many years. RVSM programs already have been implemented over the Atlantic, the Pacific, Europe, northern Canada, Southeast Asia and Australia, and are in the process of being implemented in the Middle East, Mexico and the rest of Canada.
What DRVSM will do is enable the airlines to make better use of existing airspace — the travel routes commonly used between point A and point B — by reducing the required “vertical separation” between aircraft from 2,000 feet to 1,000 feet. The rule change, made possible by recent advances in altimetry technologies, will apply to all certified aircraft flying at altitudes of 29,000 feet to 41,000 feet, which includes most commercial passenger and cargo flights.
The new standard will enable the United States to add six additional layers to U.S. airspace without jeopardizing our country’s superior aviation-safety record.
An economic analysis of the DRVSM rule, which we helped prepare for the FAA last year, found increasing available airspace will help reduce travel delays. Measured in dollars, the reduction in delays will save the federal government, the airlines,and airline passengers some $461.7 million between 2005 and 2016.
Evidence from Europe’s two-year-old RVSM program offers a glimpse at what we should expect. According to Eurocontrol, Europe’s version of the FAA, en-route delays throughout Continental Europe have decreased 40 percent since the new standards were implemented. While some of this has been due to post-September 11 travel reductions, the reduction in air traffic was less than 2 percent, hardly enough to spark a 40 percent reduction in delays.
Perhaps more important to the future health of U.S. aviation — representing nearly 9 percent of our gross domestic product — is the money airlines stand to save in reduced fuel costs. Because DRVSM will give air traffic controllers more options in routing flights above or below problem weather, the airlines should realize annual fuel savings of about 1 percent to 2 percent, we found. This may seem a minuscule percentage, but such a reduction in fuel use would save an aggregate of approximately $4.8 billion between 2005 and 2016.
To top it off, DRVSM will also reduce air pollution emissions from airplanes and offer our nation’s air traffic controllers additional operating flexibility, which they very much need.
While DRVSM will not solve all of America’s air capacity problems and all of the airlines financial troubles, it will surely help. We all have something to look forward to as we enter our second century of flight.