I've recently been handed a letter from the Director of Communications at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) which aims to clear up some incorrect information that has been published recently about satellite-based navigation and separation standards.
Here is NATCA's Doug Church on the topic, reprinted verbatim with his permission:
In a Chicago Tribune “Travel Insider” column on August 5 about flight delays and the discussion about how a Next Generation air traffic control system could help, it was reported, “Countries such as Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom are using next-generation precise satellite systems that permit much less than the normal 3 miles separation between planes.”In our many discussions on Nextgen, we often neglect to include the voice of the Air Traffic Controller, and that is a mistake. As is usually the case in Corporate America, the old, gray cronies in the Board Room make their decisions based on ego and profit instead of by listening to the people in the trenches who really know what is going on. If FAA takes this approach to the development of NextGen, it will be a fatal mistake, guaranteed.
This is not true. There are only three places in the world where aircraft are allowed to legally be closer than three miles: London Heathrow, but only during the daytime in good weather within 15 miles of landing, the United States at most major airports within 10 miles of landing, and one terminal area in Sweden.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association asked its controller colleagues in other countries about their separation standards between planes, even when using advanced navigation technologies, and here is what we found:
AUSTRALIA: While the technology is there, the standards that they have to use to separate aircraft remain the same – three nautical miles -- restricted by the reality of controllers being able to intervene with any real possibility of maintaining safety. Says our contact there: “While we love RNP (Required Navigation Performance, a modern GPS navigation system) approaches and all they offer the industry, we still use three nautical miles.” And here’s more: “ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast) separation procedures similar to radar separation minima are implemented for en-route traffic. ADS-B separation procedures for non-radar terminal areas are being developed, but minima would not be less than the radar minima.”
UNITED KINGDOM: Our contact says, “Satellite navigation can be used as one means of navigating for P-RNAV (Precision Area Navigation). However, the route spacing to be applied when using P-RNAV is five nautical miles for straight segments, and more for converging routes. The proposed route spacing is therefore still greater than the three nautical miles that can be achieved when applying radar vectors in the LTMA (London Terminal Control Area).” Our contact notes that RNP procedures in terminal airspace could eventually enable routes to be spaced by as little as 1.2 nautical miles “using the principle of containment, rather than traditional separation standards. However, in practice, such low route spacing values won’t be achieved due to the need to maintain the ‘controller intervention buffer’, i.e. provide time for controllers to detect a blunder, formulate a corrective course of action, apply the corrective course of action and the aircrew respond to the corrective action. This buffer will, in my humble opinion, prevent routes from being spaced less than the three nautical miles that is already in use in some terminal airspace.”
CANADA: Here’s what a Canadian air traffic controller wrote in the Tribune’s “comment” section beneath Mr. Borcover’s column: “As a Canadian air traffic controller, I can assure you that we are still using old radar systems with a minimum separation standard of three miles, with five miles being the standard the majority of the time. We are in the very beginning of looking at using satellite surveillance but it is not in use at this time.”
SOUTH AFRICA: South African controllers use five nautical miles as the minimum radar separation. “We are working to reduce to four nautical miles on final,” our contact says, “but it’s not approved yet. This is just radar and no fancy RNAV/RNP/GNSS in this process.”
NEW ZEALAND: Separation standards are the same as the United States’: Five nautical miles for en route airspace and three for terminal airspace. “There is discussion around reducing the en-route minima towards three nautical miles with RNP,” our contact says, “but this is still only an idea and would be some time away.”
ITALY: Separation standards of three nautical miles are used ONLY in the terminal airspace of Rome and Milan. More separation is used everywhere else.
SWEDEN: Separation standards are five nautical miles for en route and three nautical miles in terminal, except for one area where 2.5 nautical miles is used.
-Doug Church Director of Communications,
National Air Traffic Controllers Association