FAA proposes plan for navigation in NextGen environment

50-percent VOR reduction planned by 2020

January 12, 2012

By 2020, all IFR traffic will rely on satellites for navigation under an FAA proposal now open to comment.

A 50-percent reduction to the existing VOR network, part of the transition to NextGen, is planned by 2020, with a scaled-down VOR network retained as a backup to GPS. According to the notice, the FAA plans to transition from defining airways, routes, and procedures using VORs and other legacy navaids toward a National Airspace System based on area navigation (RNAV) everywhere, and required navigation performance (RNP) where beneficial. In addition, the proposed plan would require IFR aircraft to use high-precision Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS)-enabled GPS as the primary navigation system, consistent with other NextGen requirements including the Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) Out mandate that utilizes WAAS-like technology.

Heidi Williams, AOPA senior director of airspace and modernization, said AOPA members have upgraded to WAAS technology at a rate of 5,000 to 10,000 aircraft per year since WAAS was introduced in 2003. Membership surveys show GPS is the navigation system of choice for 78 percent of AOPA pilots.

“GA has embraced WAAS technology because of the benefits,” Williams said, adding that current FAA policy does not require pilots to maintain backup navigation systems while flying with WAAS. “That is the plan for the future as well: You will still not have to carry an onboard backup if WAAS equipped.”

FAA proposes retaining all existing VOR stations in the mountain west region, Alaska, Hawaii, and U.S. islands and territories as the current infrastructure of 945 FAA-maintained VOR stations is reduced to 483 (the minimum operational network) by 2020. The remaining network would allow safe ILS and VOR approaches virtually nationwide—without radar vectors, DME or ADF equipment—in the event of a GPS outage. VOR coverage would be maintained at and above 5,000 feet agl across most of the continental U.S.

Other details of the complex undertaking remain to be worked out. The FAA produced a three-page briefing on the proposal at AOPA’s request.

“We recognized our members need more information on how the FAA came to retain the 50 percent of existing VORs,” Williams said. “This is how the FAA came to the place they are.”

The white paper includes graphic depictions of proposed VOR coverage, but does not address many important details such as revision of instrument approach procedures or Victor airways. AOPA is working with the FAA and industry to further develop this aspect of NextGen implementation. Comments on the proposed navigation policy including the reduction to the existing VOR infrastructure are being accepted through March 7. AOPA encourages members to share their input with the FAA and copy AOPA  on those comments as well.