FAA releases National Airspace System Navigation Strategy

November 10, 2016  - By

pnt_nas-navigation-strategy-faa-2016The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has released its Performance-Based Navigation (PBN) National Airspace System (NAS) Navigation Strategy 2016, the result of a concerted year-long effort by FAA and aviation industry stakeholders. It describes how the FAA intends to transition U.S. NAS operations over the near- (2016–2020), mid- (2021–2025) and far-term (2025–2030) from predominantly point-to-point navigation, reliant on hundreds of ground-based navigation aids, to PBN-centric operations relying on systems and services supporting Area Navigation (RNAV) and Required Navigation Performance (RNP).

Performance-based navigation specifies the aircraft area navigation performance in terms of accuracy, integrity, availability, continuity and functionality needed to conduct specific operations in a particular airspace.

While promoting the PBN benefits of GNSS such as the GPS and the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), the PBN Strategy also recognizes the need to maintain resilient PBN capabilities that remain unaffected in the event of GNSS interference, and that can continue to support PBN operations or provide safe navigation alternatives. It is a well-constructed, valuable document that provides detail on the means by which many of the Operational Improvements (OIs) described in the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) implementation Plan (NGIP) will be achieved.

The FAA began the introduction of PBN operations following the release of its Roadmap for Performance-Based Navigation in 2003, which promoted more efficient and higher capacity operations based on the capabilities of modern aircraft and emerging GNSS-supported PBN procedures. By 2010, many PBN procedures were in use across the NAS, and especially at the busiest airports and most complicated and congested airspace. Building on this experience, the 2016 PBN Strategy recognizes that the U.S. NAS is not a homogeneous entity; its needs vary based on both location and time. To best serve NAS users and to continue to provide the safest, highest capacity, most efficient airspace in the world, some of the key concepts of the strategy are to provide:

  • the right procedure to meet the need;
  • structure where beneficial and flexibility where possible;
  • shifting to time- and speed-based air traffic management;
  • and delivering and using resilient navigation services.

To provide correct procedure and structure where needed, the PBN Strategy defines six Navigation Service Groups (NSG) and services potentially available at the airports within each group. NSG 1, now comprising about 15 airports, is reserved for the busiest large hubs that would benefit from common aircraft performance capabilities to maximize capacity. NSG 2 contains the remaining large-hub and all medium-hub airports. Small and non-hub airports comprise NSG 3. NSG 4 includes more than 500 airports, including national and regional general aviation (GA, or private plane) airports, and NSG 5 2,400 local and basic GA airports. NSG 6 consists of thousands of small airports not part of the National Plan of Integrated Airport System (NPIAS).

Time- and speed-based navigation is essential to optimal utilization of airport capability and capacity for both arrival and approach and departure operations. The ability of aircraft to more precisely follow PBN procedures because of onboard navigation capability and space- and ground-based navigation services maintains safety, increases airspace and runway utilization, and — because of more efficient, precise routing — minimizes fuel burn and carbon footprint.

The PBN Strategy also recognizes the need to maintain resilient PBN services and, while GNSS-provided PNT services are able to support both RNAV and RNP procedures, GNSS is vulnerable to both intentional and unintentional interference. To preclude loss of efficiency and capacity benefits in the event of GNSS interference, the FAA will maintain and improve the ground-based Distance Measuring Equipment (DME)/Tactical Navigation (TACAN) network to support DME-DME RNAV 2 in the enroute domain and RNAV 1 in the necessary terminal domains. Because of plans to fill gaps in coverage at high altitudes (FL 180 and above) and remove single DME facility criticality, aircraft without inertial reference units (IRUs) will be able to fly these procedures using DME-DME RNAV, although at the much lower altitudes associated with terminal operations, an IRU may still be required. For aircraft without DME-DME RNAV capability, for example General Aviation, the FAA will maintain a Minimum Operational Network (MON) of Very High Frequency Omnidirectional Ranges (VORs) to either support navigation out of a GNSS interference area or navigation to an airport where approach and landing is supported by either an Instrument Landing System (ILS) or VOR.


PBN services depicted across Navigation Service Group airports represent the standard in the far term, 2026–2030.

PBN services depicted across Navigation Service Group airports represent the standard in the far term, 2026–2030.

The FAA’s plan to maintain resilience, while admirable, does have some issues. All of the VORs, DMEs and TACANs that provide resilient navigation services are extremely old, the vast majority designed in the 1970s and installed in the 1980s. There is no current plan to modernize or recapitalize them.

As for researching and developing an Alternate Position, Navigation and Timing capability that would support resilient PBN capability for all of aviation, maintain the ability for aircraft to report their positions via Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B), and support the rapid and vast emergence of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAS) and benefits, the PBN Strategy states that “During the far term and moving out into the 2030 timeframe and beyond, the FAA will continue to research the best methods for Alternate Position, Navigation and Timing (APNT).”

This delay is unfortunate, as further delay in implementing PNT resilience for all aspects of aviation, as well as for all critical infrastructure areas is, at best, imprudent, as recent agency attempts to develop and implement other resilient PNT capabilities — Enhanced DME (eDME) and Enhance Loran (eLoran) — have been suspended.

The release of the 2016 PBN Strategy is a significant event. It will help guide the agency and the aviation community forward. It will help clarify policy, facilitate decisions, drive equipage, and provide for a safe, higher capacity and more efficient NAS. It is a good start, which could be improved by recognizing the significant investments needed in resilient PNT equipment, architecture and systems.