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Aircraft: Closing the Gaps

Mary Grady

When the FAA announced five years ago that it was planning to add more routes at higher flight levels by cutting in half the required vertical separation between aircraft—from 2,000 feet to 1,000 feet—private aviation travelers seemed to be among the beneficiaries, along with the airlines and air traffic controllers. The additional routes would mean more flexibility for business jets, making this mode of travel even more convenient.
 
The FAA’s new regulations indeed are expected to reduce costs for the airlines and ease the workload of air traffic controllers, but the advantages for business aviation are less clear. “The added flight levels may relieve congestion en route, but when you get to an airport, you still have to wait your turn to land,” says Don Tinker, owner of RVSM Consultants, a Texas firm that advises aircraft owners on RVSM (Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum) airspace compliance. “So what’s the advantage?”

The new rules, which took effect in January, add six additional routes at altitudes between about 29,000 and 41,000 feet. Air traffic controllers now have more options for guiding jets around inclement weather, and they can assign direct routing to more aircraft, which conserves fuel and minimizes delays. The FAA says that RVSM will save airlines and other aircraft operators $5.3 billion in fuel costs from now through 2016.

However, obtaining certification to fly in the RVSM airspace can be a long and expensive process, notes Tinker. “To upgrade an older airplane and jump through all the hoops required by the FAA can cost up to $100,000 or more,” he says, and it can take several months. Aircraft with navigation equipment that is not advanced must have it upgraded to ensure safe separation, the pilots must be retrained, and the operators must be authorized. Even newer aircraft, which are fitted with the required equipment in the factory, must go through the authorization process.

Although meeting the RVSM-related requirements may be costly for business jet operators, failing to comply with the new regulations is also expensive. Operators that are not certified are banned from the higher flight levels where they usually have operated. “There’s a huge difference in fuel efficiency for a jet flying at 39,000—a typical cruising altitude—and flying at 28,000, which is the highest you can go if you’re not RVSM compliant,” says Tinker. A jet equipped with the most common type of engines would burn about $500 worth of fuel per hour at 39,000 feet and about $800 per hour at 28,000 feet. For a business jet averaging about three hours of flight time a day, that expense accumulates quickly. Presented with the cost of losing access to all that airspace, the vast majority of business aircraft operators have chosen to become RVSM certified.
 
Besides the increased expense, industry observers raise another concern: Is it safe to have so many airplanes, flying at hundreds of miles per hour, so close together? The FAA maintains that it is, reporting that, worldwide, 5 million flights per year are flown in RVSM airspace. “The FAA is the last modern civil aviation authority in the world to go to RVSM,” says Bob Lamond, director of air traffic services and infrastructure for the National Business Aviation Association. “We know of no accident that has ever been attributed to RVSM.”

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