Airspace Redesign Project Results in Industry Wide Collaboration
Thursday, January 12, 2012

What started as 45 individuals working on an airspace redesign project has turned into what may be one of the best collaboration projects the aviation industry has ever seen.

On Monday, Jan. 9 those 45 individuals comprising the D.C. Metroplex Design and Implementation (D&I) team gathered at the MITRE Corporation Aviation Integrations Demonstration and Experimentation for Aeronautics (IDEA) Laboratory in McLean, Va., for a three-day Human in the Loop Scenario (HILTS) “scrub.” The scrub is essentially a practice test held prior to an official HILTS. In the MITRE Aviation IDEA Laboratory, pilots, controllers, airlines officials and other key aviation industry stakeholders are able to view and work with a proposed concept change through a real-time, distributed simulation environment.

Monday, Jan. 9 through Wednesday, Jan. 11, the Metroplex D&I team ran test simulations on its airspace redesign of 15 arrivals and 12 departures among the three Washington, D.C. area airports to confirm that the team design is what MITRE built. This includes making sure the aircraft flies the Area Navigation (RNAV) procedure correctly, the aircraft is able to climb and descend as they would during an actual flight, and handling any problems the team may encounter during procedures.

According to the FAA, a Metroplex is a geographic area covering several airports, serving major metropolitan areas, and a diversity of aviation stakeholders. The D.C. Metroplex team is one of many across the country, including Houston, North Texas, Northern California, Charlotte, N.C., Atlanta and Southern California. Made up of controllers, pilots, airport operations, engineers and program managers, these Metroplex teams were formed when, based on feedback from the aviation community and major industry drivers, the FAA created an initiative called Optimization of the Airspace and Procedures in the Metroplex (OAPM). OAPM takes a collaborative approach to using Performance Based Navigation (PBN) procedures combined with airspace redesign to deliver the most efficient operation and benefits to the selected Metroplex. Congestion, airport activity in close geographical proximity, and other limiting factors such as environmental constraints combine to reduce efficiency in busy Metroplexes.

The D.C. Metroplex D&I team includes Matt Sullivan, NATCA President, Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) and Bennie Hutto, NATCA Vice President, Potomac TRACON, who are working on the project along side a variety of aviation industry players.

“This [project] is all being done through collaboration and that is very, very important that you have a group, not only with the controllers, but with the industry, with the service center, environmentalists, PBN  office,” said Hutto. He went on to add that the collaboration between these groups would help accomplish the goals of the D.C. Metroplex team.

The team’s goals for the project are to reduce the workload for the controllers, and to reduce fuel and mileage for pilots by using PBN procedures. PBN procedures are a framework for defining navigation performance requirements and can be applied to an air traffic route, instrument procedures, or defined airspace. The procedures provide a basis for the design and implementation of automated flight paths as well as for airspace design and obstacle clearance.

The D&I team plans to achieve those goals based on the “The Golden Circle” method of motivational speaker Simon Sinek. At the outset of the project they asked themselves: What are we going to do? How are we going to do it? Why are we doing it?

Dave Perkins, Program Manager, D&I, D.C. Metroplex at FAA said that the “why” question drives everything in a project and that from day one the 45-person team approached the project from the “why” mentality, which has allowed for the team’s success.

“It’s the belief in the “why” and it’s the collaboration with the FAA,” said Perkins. “When we rise to the occasion to make the system better, we can move mountains…as a 29-year veteran, these are the best projects I’ve seen regarding collaboration.”

“This is very complicated airspace and air traffic and this team created something that’s never been done before,” said Jeff Davis, Lead Multiple Discipline Systems Engineer, MITRE. “We’ve never had controllers say, ‘hey if we did this, would it work with what you’re doing?’ And it’s wonderful to see.”

Captain Brian Townsend, Flight and Technical Operations, US Airways, said that the team is changing the congested Washington, D.C., area airspace to better accommodate the procedures in place, which completely changes the way controllers manage traffic in that airspace.

“Making sure that the controllers that work those pieces of airspace are also part of the team makes the job (OAPM project) much more achievable,” said Townsend.   

Hutto said that another crucial part of the D&I team’s project is having team members fly the redesigned airspace. Townsend, Hutto and Perkins have already flown the redesigned flight path from Charlotte, N.C., into Washington National Airport (DCA) and this past week they flew the redesigned flight path from Dallas/Forth Worth International Airport (DFW) into Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI). Post flight the team meets for an evaluation.

“We ask ourselves, did [the flight path] create more work for the controllers?” Hutto said. “Do we need to tweak a fix to the left or the right? Do we need to make the altitude of the flight path higher or lower?”

The D.C. Metroplex D&I team started working on the project on June 27, 2011. After six months of dedication, hard work and collaboration the MITRE Corporation took the five RNAV stars the team developed and built the HILTS for controller simulation. In just over a week, the team will see their work simulated by controllers. If the project proceeds as planned, the team hopes to see their procedures publicized in August 2013.

“It’s still a work in progress, but we are achieving what we set out to do,” said Hutto.