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Why The FAA’s 169 New Routes Will Impact Air Travel

My aircraft N7YR at the gate in Baltimore (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

Last weekend, the Federal Aviation Administration announced a plan to add more east-coast routes for flights. 169 new flight corridors will be inaugurated for the summer season, while many others will be retired. The FAA says the new routes are more direct, faster, and will make the airspace along the east coast more efficient. This begs the question: how do airlines and pilots choose which routings to fly, and why does the FAA get to dictate some of them?

Seasonal Avgeeks will know the general format of airline routings: generally speaking, aircraft fly along “highways” in the sky called airways connecting specific waypoints to get from one airport to another. Departure and arrival procedures sequence aircraft into and out of terminal areas, and instrument approaches line aircraft up for specific runways at specific airports.

This seems straightforward enough. So why does the FAA dictate which routes aircraft take instead of letting them choose for themselves? And how do you make airplane routes more efficient?

Old vs New Routings

Many of the old routes that the FAA is retiring are determined by ground-based navigation aids, also called NAVAIDs. The most common type of ground-based NAVAIDs is based on “Very-High-Frequency Omnidirectional Range” stations, or VORs. These stations, since they’re ground-based, have specific locations on the ground, and aircraft can fly along radio signals they emit to join airways.

There are two major issues with VORs. First, they are subject to a number of limitations, most importantly that they’re line-of-sight: the path between an aircraft and a VOR must be uninhibited by obstructions like buildings or mountains. Secondly, as previously stated, they have fixed positions. While VORs used to be ample around the United States, they’re in the beginning stages of being phased out, which means there are fewer and fewer available to determine routings. Thus, aircraft have to use more and more roundabout airways connecting VORs, which means their routings are less efficient than they once could have been.

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A Virgin America A320 lands at Reagan National Airport. The East Coast is getting new GPS-based routes for the summer season. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Craig Fischer)

Thus, the Federal Aviation Administration is transferring many of its facilities to GPS-based stations. Satellites perpetually in orbit and without any one fixed location allow the FAA to create more direct routings between places. Waypoints still have fixed geographical locations, but they no longer need to be defined by hardware on the ground that needs to be built around airports, obstructions, homes, parks, or other obstacles. It is therefore cheaper for the FAA to build easier routings for aircraft to use connecting different airports. With more waypoints, you can have more airways, and you can more easily send aircraft between waypoints that are not defined by airways, especially in mountainous areas where more VORs are significantly limited by line-of-sight problems.

Why the FAA Needs Predetermined Routes

But why does the FAA need to create specific routings? Couldn’t airlines just link together whatever GPS waypoints they want and call it a route? While sometimes minute differences in routings exist, the FAA does more than just establish waypoints. In order to increase the efficiency of the national airspace system, the FAA also publishes “Preferred IFR Routes” between airports that are frequently connected. Many airports are not connected by these routes, but on busy routes like JFK-LAX, DFW-ORD, and IAH-SFO, it’s easiest for the FAA to plan on each aircraft having more or less the same routing so they can proactively route other planes around each other. These preferred IFR routes can also apply to terminal areas; it is easy, for example, for a business jet taking off from Chicago Executive Airport, which is less than 10 miles from O’Hare, to join a preferred route to take it to Miami or Washington, D.C.

The FAA also cites ease in adapting to weather conditions – fewer GPS limitations means more options where controllers can send flights who need to deviate – and a reduction in converging points – more GPS waypoints reduce the necessity for everyone to fly to and converge on the same VORs – as reasons why they are increasing the number of GPS routes across the east coast.

Busy Summer to Come

The change comes as the United States approaches what is expected to be an incredibly busy summer season. After a winter that saw a significant number of flights delayed, especially around the December holidays, it is of paramount importance that airlines operate as efficiently as possible, and the possibility of new, more efficient routings will help that cause.

“These significant improvements to our national airspace system are just in time for summer and will help travelers get to their destinations more efficiently,” said Tim Arel, the chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization. “The new routes will reduce complexity and redistribute volume across all available airspace. I’m proud of the FAA and industry’s strong collaboration on this project to get it done.”

A United A320 in a retro livery landing in Las Vegas.
(Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

“American has long been a proponent of unlocking additional high-altitude routes along the East Coast and we are optimistic they will have significant benefits for our customers and team members,” American Airlines Chief Operating Officer David Seymour wrote in an email to CNBC.

The FAA reports that new routings will shave off 40,000 miles and 6,000 minutes of travel time annually because of their efficiency.

FAA Staffing Shortages

Besides making travel more efficient, the FAA hopes that the efficient routings will alleviate some of the stress on the Air Traffic Control (ATC) system, which has been drastically understaffed for years. Having more efficient routes will mean that controllers can separate and sequence flights more easily and increase the capacity of the system, allowing more flights to operate with the same number of controllers.

Air Traffic Control shortages have proved problematic for the FAA since the pandemic rebound, as they were unable to match the sudden uptick in flights with a similar increase in controllers. The East Coast has been hit particularly hard, with Jacksonville Center, in particular, becoming notorious for being understaffed and delayed. With efficient routes, the FAA can address this staffing problem to keep more flights running on time.

John McDermott

Author

  • John McDermott

    John McDermott is a student at Northwestern University. He is also a student pilot with hopes of flying for the airlines. A self-proclaimed "avgeek," John will rave about aviation at length to whoever will listen, and he is keen to call out any airplane he sees, whether or not anyone around him cares about flying at all. John previously worked as a Journalist and Editor-In-Chief at Aeronautics Online Aviation News and Media. In his spare time, John enjoys running, photography, and watching planes approach Chicago O'Hare from over Lake Michigan.

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