NextGen; the Next Generation of Navigation and Community Impacts

There is a historic change taking place in how planes navigate the airspace, shifting from radar-based navigation to global-positioning. This change, and all the elements that surround it, are broadly referred to as the next generation of navigation or "NextGen." There has been strong support in Congress to implement NextGen as efficiently as possible and the 2012 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) bill directed the FAA to implement NextGen at the 35 largest airports by 2025. Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) would be included in that directive.

The FAA touts the benefits of NextGen as enhancing safety, reducing delays, saving fuel and cutting emissions. Minneapolis has consistently expressed support for NextGen, but has also noted that the way it is implemented is critical. The new technology surrounding NextGen can affect how planes operate and how they are experienced by communities on the ground. Utilizing this technology, planes can fly very precise route and could do so repeatedly. Under old procedures, there is more natural variation in flights paths. There are benefits to very precise paths, but there is also the potential to expose certain areas to a greater concentration of overflights. NextGen also allows a reduction in separation between airplanes - both in the distance of one behind another, and the lateral spacing (space from side to side). This would allow the airport to move more planes, more quickly, but also results in more planes in the air and increase in the potential frequency of planes using the same route. 

One element of NextGen is Area Navigation, known as "RNAV." RNAV refers to establishing precise flight tracks that can be followed repeatedly. RNAV tracks consolidate air traffic and are sometimes described as "highways in the sky." Directing planes on precise routes could be a tool for reduce noise over populated areas if tracks were designed to avoid such areas. However, noise considerations do not appear to be much of a consideration when tracks are designed. In many communities where the procedures have been put into place, they have resulted in increased noise complaints and dissatisfaction. There is demand from the FAA and airlines to establish the most efficient routes possible to save time and fuel. A by-product is also reduced emissions. But, these fuel efficient routes are not necessarily the best from a noise perspective. The design and implementation of RNAV must consider, and give real weight, to the impacts to communities on the ground.  Minneapolis has very consistently advocated at the federal level for the FAA to engage impacted communities in this process.

Stopping RNAV departures at MSP

Starting in 2010, the FAA has began exploring how to implement RNAV procedures at MSP.  In January of 2012, the FAA was on the agenda of the Noise Oversight Committee (NOC) to present the proposed RNAV tracks for MSP when they withdrew their request to make a presentation. It was on the agenda for the next NOC meeting in March, and again withdrawn. Finally in September, the FAA was ready to present the tracks. The MAC had planned that the community representatives of NOC would develop a plan for public notification (not input) of the tracks before the next NOC meeting in November and then implement the notification plan between November and January. However, at the meeting the FAA stated that they needed things to move much faster than that. They said that due to time constraints with their testing equipment, they either needed the MAC to show their support for the RNAV tracks as presented, without any opportunity for changes, or the implementation of the project would be delayed until the fall of 2014.

At this point in the process, Minneapolis had already expressed significant concerns regarding how this plan would work. RNAV was a relatively new concept at the time and had not been in wide use. There were many questions at the time.  Was there a way to utilize this technology that would not concentrate flights over certain homes? How wide are these paths? How many could you have? What other changes could we expect? The answers were not forthcoming. The tracks that were ultimately presented would concentrate flights over a few areas. One track expected a high number of departures to fly over the same parts of southwest Minneapolis and Edina repeatedly. This certainly caused alarm for these residents. 

Residents and City officials from Minneapolis and Edina strenuously objected to the implementation of RNAV because concerns persisted, question were unanswered, and the public process was inadequate. Members of the State Legislature also expressed their concerns to MAC. However, some other cities surrounding the airport supported the proposal to move forward with RNAV.  MAC listened to concerned residents and informed the FAA that they do not support the full implementation of RNAV procedures, but they would support RNAV departures over communities south of the airport.  Ultimately, the FAA determined that it was not feasible to implement RNAV for some, but not all, departure procedures. Therefore, RNAV departure tracks are not being used at MSP. However, RNAV arrivals were later approved, and are in use at MSP.  The arrival procedures were seen as less controversial due to the fact that arrival routes are already less variable than departures due to the need to line up for landing.

Last updated Feb 27, 2019



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