Putting ADS-B Into Action
Friday, July 12, 2013

Last month, JetBlue, in collaboration with the FAA, scheduled its first-ever Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) commercial flight from Florida to the West Coast. 

The airline’s Airbus 320s departed Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on June 9, and flew across the Gulf of Mexico to avoid turbulent weather on its way to San Francisco. This was the first commercial aircraft that reached its destination using a route that relied predominately on ADS-B. 

“This first event is a big deal,” said Robert Nichols, Surveillance Services Manager for the Program Management Organization at Headquarters. 

ADS-B, a vital component of NextGen, provides surveillance capabilities to aircraft in areas without radar coverage, such as the Gulf. The Friday before the flight, team members from the Air Traffic Organization and Houston Center (ZHU) including NATCA representatives held a teleconference to discuss the best approach for the JetBlue flight based on a weather deviation. The group decided to modify an ADS-B-only route previously designed for weather deviation based upon input from NATCA representative Dustin Newell. 

(ABOVE) The flight path of JetBlue's first commercial flight over the Gulf of Mexico using ADS-B.

The re-routing avoided weather-related delays that had affected other parts of the National Airspace System, and shaved off about 100 miles from the flight’s initial path. That resulted in hundreds of gallons of fuel savings, Nichols said. 

“They didn’t have to take a delay in the flight,” he said. “This is one of the intended benefits of the [ADS-B] capability.” 

This kind of collaboration is part of the agency’s ongoing partnership with JetBlue and Aviation Communication & Surveillance Systems (ACSS). In November 2010, the FAA signed a NextGen agreement with JetBlue and ACSS to investigate and implement activities that would demonstrate NextGen benefits by accelerating equipage of JetBlue aircraft with ACSS ADS-B technology. Under the agreement, 35 of the airline’s A320 aircraft were equipped with rule-compliant ADS-B avionics.

JetBlue was able to secure the certification of ADS-B equipment for all of its A320s in July of 2012 and complete the modifications at the end of last year, said Joseph Bertapelle, JetBlue Director of Strategic Airspace Programs. The technology enabled last month’s flight to travel the same city pairs in less time than one of JetBlue’s competitors. 

“On a bad weather day, we flew one of these routes for the first time and we saved about 100 miles of extra flying,” Bertapelle said. The recent success could eventually lead to more flights using the Gulf ADS-B route, he said. 

“We’re going to try to make it happen more often,” Bertapelle said. “We have to coordinate these routes. It’s progress.” 

Marilyn Oberhardt, an FAA’s Surveillance and Broadcast Services (SBS) Program officer, said the flight route creates a template for future ADS-B-only flights, not only for JetBlue but other airlines.

“It’s the ability to offer different and better routing because of the technology,” Oberhardt said. “This was a successful operational use of the technology that will hopefully incentivize other airlines to adopt ADS-B.” 

The flight also demonstrated a successful non-radar operation that crossed a variety of air traffic, including flights to popular resorts in Mexico, said ZHU NATCA SBS National A48 representative Eric Labardini. 

“The Gulf of Mexico’s airspace has a high traffic volume from a variety of users that typically lack surveillance. Finding routes that safely cross this airspace is a complex undertaking,” Labardini said. “Houston Center has a long history of supporting ADS-B. The controllers appreciate the benefit, as well as the user, and we are all cautiously optimistic.” 

He praised the quick turnaround in the cooperation between NATCA, the FAA and airline officials on a flight route solution. 

“It really highlights a good example of collaboration and how quickly things can come to a successful result,” Labardini said.