The Houston/North Texas OAPM Launch: Perspectives From NATCA Safety, Tech and NextGen Representatives
Friday, April 11, 2014

On May 29, Houston Center (ZHU), Fort Worth Center (ZFW), Memphis Center (ZME), Houston TRACON (I90), Houston Intercontinental Tower (IAH), and Houston Hobby Tower (HOU) will implement 89 new procedures as part of the Optimization of Airspace and Procedures in the Metroplex (OAPM) project. North Texas facilities will implement another 77 three months later. These are just the starting points for more widespread implementation nationwide.

OAPM is a targeted effort to decrease congestion in busy metropolitan areas. This effort includes developing and implementing performance-based navigation procedures coupled with airspace changes that facilitate greater air traffic efficiency. Initiatives are also underway in Northern and Southern California, Atlanta, Charlotte, Phoenix, Cleveland and Detroit, South and Central Florida, and Washington, D.C. 

This week, we asked Safety and Technology Director Dale Wright, National Airspace Representative Jim Davis, and NextGen Representative Mel Davis about this important project.

Question: What is most important for our members to know about the Houston and North Texas launches of new procedures and what it means for modernization?

Dale Wright: It is very important for our members to know how much NATCA has been involved in these two projects through our various Metroplex or OAPM Teams.  Through the leadership of Jim Davis, the efforts of these two initiatives are moving forward. It all starts with the Study Teams, led by NATCA's National Study Team Lead Jeff Woods.  The Study Team actually begins the process with a three to four-month review of the procedures and needs of the facilities using controllers from the local area to complete their work.  Mark McKelligan is the Design and Implementation (D&I) Lead and these teams put countless hours into their work, often re-writing procedures to ensure everyone is receiving benefits.  These benefits are not just for the users but also the controllers.

Jim Davis: These changes are the result of a collaborative process – between NATCA, management and industry. NATCA has been a part of this process at national and local levels. (For the members in Houston, this is not HAATS.) NATCA has significant ownership of these efforts, and we have pushed for significant evaluation of these new procedures. These changes target flight efficiency improvements.  We are working to make sure the efficiency is added AND the right supporting tools are available.  The intent for the Houston and North Texas implementations is to use lessons learned from other projects, primarily to bring a full set of capabilities to the table to enhance the operation.  These changes will include tools to support controllers as we change procedures.  This includes ERAM (En Route Automation Modernization), TAMR (Terminal Automation Modernization and Replacement) and TBFM (Time Based Flow Management).

Mel Davis: What’s most important for our members is that large scale changes to operations are very rare, only occurring every couple of decades or so.  The reasons for this are many, but the main reason is that the NAS is already very efficient.  The upcoming changes in Houston and North Texas will make the NAS slightly more efficient, inching closer to perfection.  Even though these efficiency improvements are incremental, they are very necessary due to the benefits the improvements will provide.  What has been proven in other parts of the NAS is that effective airspace and procedure redesign results in lower fuel burn, reduced carbon emissions and a reduction in read-back/hear-back errors.  Small changes are tough, large changes are very tough.  These are large changes but they are well thought out and there is benefit for everybody in the NAS and really, the country when you consider greater energy independence.

Question: How significant is this project in advancing NextGen?

Dale Wright: NextGen needs to show it can move the airspace forward.  These projects are very significant in the NextGen plan. The Houston Metroplex is on the White House Dashboard, giving it even more attention.

Jim Davis: PBN (Performance-Based Navigation) is an enabling technology for NextGen.  Metroplex (aka OAPM) is one of the FAA’s primary methods for implementing PBN. NextGen isn’t a single tool or a single technology.  It is based on an integrated set of capabilities that endeavor to make the NAS better.  These projects in Houston and North Texas are the best examples of NextGen, bringing together tools (ERAM, TBFM), airspace (new sectors) and procedures (RNAV SIDs and STARs, RNP ARs). PBN and Metroplex are top priorities for NextGen:  identified by Industry, through RTCA in 2009 with Task Force 5 and recently (2013) as part of NAC (NextGen Advisory Committee) recommendations for NextGen; featured in almost every presentation, piece of testimony and paper of NextGen. The Houston Metroplex project is one of the projects that the FAA has included on the White House Dashboard. That is the highest level of visibility for a NextGen project.

Mel Davis: Airspace and procedure redesign is really a building block of NextGen, a very significant building block.  If you consider that ERAM and TAMR are the chassis that NextGen will be bolted onto, the automation systems are absolutely essential.  The next most logical step is to leverage current aircraft fleet equipage in conjunction with ATC automation system upgrades.  The changes in Houston and North Texas do just that.  Additionally, the Houston changes maximize the use of a relatively new automation system, TBFM.  Even though TBFM has been around for a couple of decades, the deployment of the airspace and procedure changes in Houston will rely greatly on the capabilities within TBFM.   So with ERAM, TAMR, OAPM (Metroplex) and TBFM you have a large chunk of NextGen all coming together in late May; that’s pretty significant. 

Question: What are the biggest challenges that our facilities have in implementing these new procedures; but conversely, what will be the biggest advantages they will have after implementation in doing their work and keeping our system safe and even more efficient?

Dale Wright: There are several challenges that are present, including user acceptance, controller acceptance, sustainable benefits and the largest challenge of them all will be environmental issues.  The agency has been redesigning their environmental process but the local communities are going to be a challenge with noise issues.  The biggest advantages when these procedures are implemented will be a more consistent flow of traffic, predictability of traffic patterns, and if everything is correctly designed and correctly flown controller workload could be significantly reduced.

Jim Davis: Challenge: very large scale change (dozens of procedures, integration of tools and procedures); even though we have modeled and simulated several scenarios, we don’t know exactly how implementation will go.  Uncertainty is always a challenge.

Challenge: the benefits associated with PBN assume that we will leave aircraft on the procedures, and that requires a different mindset on how we space and separate aircraft.  The spacing requirements will be pushed further back from the terminal boundary to top of descent.  Aircraft will be entering the TRACON airspace in a descent, unlike today, and speed becomes a more important spacing tool (versus vectoring).

Challenge: we know there will be issues with the implementation, there always are.  Keeping the system working through transition is difficult.  We need to let issues surface and address them.  We have resources set aside that will allow us to address operational issues quickly and effectively.

Advantage:  we have an implementation “playbook” and other resources (floor walkers and response team) that will support the implementation process.  These resources will be available for several weeks.

Advantage: successful implementation should result in more predictable flight paths, less verbal communication and de-conflicted routes.

Mel Davis: Michael Huerta has a pretty good way of describing our largest challenge and it goes something like this:  FAA is a great operational agency and is a good planning agency.

Changes like the ones coming to the State of Texas over the next few months have required a ton of planning while keeping the current system running.  The challenge of planning while operating cannot be understated; it’s really tough.  My hat goes off to those men and women out there stepping up to the plate and participating in change while operating our great national asset, the NAS.