Southern California Metroplex Project to Establish Satellite-Based Air Traffic Control Procedures
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Southern California Metroplex Project to Establish Satellite-Based Air Traffic Control Procedures

The satellite-based procedures will replace numerous extant conventional procedures

September 6, 2016

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has ruled in favor of replacing conventional air traffic control procedures with satellite-based procedures in southern California.

The agency issued its No Significant Impact/Record of Decision finding for the Southern California Metroplex project on Tuesday. Before making this decision, the FAA made thorough reviews of how the environment would be affected and held around 90 public meetings and stakeholder briefings. It also reviewed and replied to thousands of public comments and adjusted its plans several times in response to input from the public.

The agency is planning to start right away on phasing in the use of the satellite-based procedures: it intends to begin in November and continue through April 2017. It will reach out to the public again before publishing the procedures in order to inform people regarding the changes.

The project includes 99 new procedures, which are a crucial part of the FAA's nationwide Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). They comprise 41 departure, 37 arrival, and 21 approach procedures intended to guide aircraft down until very near to their destination airports. In addition, it will increase the number of entry and exit points into and out of airspace in southern California, covering most of that area and involving six major airports and 15 satellite airports.

Revision of the procedures is necessary due to the decades-old age of many of the air traffic procedures currently in use in southern California. Although all of these are safe, some are not as efficient as they could be because they rely on ground-based navigation aids, which limit the number of flight paths available.

Some of the extant procedures take longer than necessary or require the aircraft to climb or descend inefficiently or even to converge and occupy the same airspace. When this occurs, air traffic controllers give pilots a series of instructions to vector their aircraft onto routes that are more direct and that will keep them safely separated from each other. In addition, vectoring leads to irregular and less-predictable flight paths as well as increasing the workload of pilots and controllers and how much they have to communicate.

In contrast, satellite-based procedures allow controllers to route flights more optimally through the use of fixed routes, altitudes, and speeds. The precise flight tracks enabled by these procedures assist controllers in keeping routes separated from each other automatically, which reduces the need for pilots to vector and communicate unnecessarily with controllers.

The environmental analysis conducted by the FAA for the project calculate noise levels at more than 330,000 locations throughout the area covered by the study. The result indicated that the proposed action would not lead to any significant or reportable increase in noise under the National Environmental Policy Act.

After it released its Draft Environmental Assessment in June of 2015, the agency held 11 public workshops on the project. It also held roughly 79 other briefings for affected stakeholders, including community groups, tribes, airport officials, and officials at the local, state, and federal levels.

Over the course of a 120-day public comment period, the FAA received more than 4,000 comments, which it responded to after the end of the period before it made a final decision on the project. In response to public input, it added a new arrival procedure and made changes to six other procedures.

It is possible that some people will see aircraft where they previously did not fly once the procedures are put into effect. This will result from changes in air routes and from the fact the satellite-based procedures create flight paths that are more concentrated than those created by traditional procedures. Additionally, some people will experience slight decreases in flight noise, some slight increases, and some no change at all.

The project's website has a Google Earth feature that enables people to see the projected flight paths and changes in noise associated with implementation of the project. The website will also feature updates on the dates when procedures will be implemented.