The Las Vegas Nevada sign with buildings and palm trees behind it

Las Vegas Gets an Air Traffic Makeover

By Marlis McCollum

The “stays in Vegas” rule works for a lot of things, but not if it’s your flight. New airspace and procedure designs are making flight to and from the Las Vegas area safer and more efficient than ever before.

Pilots flying into and out of Las Vegas-area airports are experiencing time, workload, and fuel savings thanks to a joint Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and MITRE effort to improve air traffic flows around one of the nation’s busiest aviation hubs.

The Las Vegas initiative is part of a program called Metroplex, a term coined to describe a geographic area that multiple major airports serve.

“There’s an interdependency among nearby airports,” says Jeff Davis, MITRE lead for the Metroplex effort in the federally funded R&D center we operate for the FAA. “Problems with an arrival or departure flow at one airport have a domino effect on the others. With Metroplex, we assess the air traffic in an entire region to improve efficiencies across the board.”

The program is a collaborative one, involving teams of FAA, MITRE, and aviation industry stakeholders. By the program’s completion in 2022, the Metroplex teams will have redesigned flows in 11 geographic regions.

Vegas is the 10th of the Metroplex projects to be fully implemented, and it’s unique in several ways.

Las Vegas Region Presents Multifaceted Challenges

Mountainous terrain to the west and southwest of Las Vegas limits where aircraft can fly. Likewise, the presence of Nellis Air Force Base to the north further constrains traffic flows.

“There’s a lot of restricted airspace associated with Nellis,” Davis explains. “Also, Nellis’s airspace is adjacent to the airspace of Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport.”

In the past, that proximity required a lot of communication between Nellis and McCarran controllers to coordinate traffic flows. “To reduce those communications, we deconflicted the flows of commercial traffic from the military traffic,” Davis says. “And by deconflicting the flows, we also made them safer.”

Another challenge the Las Vegas Metroplex team faced was that a lot of the region’s airspace had been designed many years ago, for aircraft that were quite different from the ones in operation today.

“Those early designs didn’t offer the descent paths that today’s faster aircraft require,” Davis says. “To fix that, we expanded the airspace to give airline pilots and controllers the time and space to execute the more efficient descents newer aircraft are designed for.”

Problems with an arrival or departure flow at one airport have a domino effect. With Metroplex, we assess air traffic in an entire region to improve efficiencies across the board.

Jeff Davis, MITRE Metroplex Lead

The team also separated the flows of airline traffic from business and general aviation aircraft, many of which use Henderson Executive Airport, 13 miles south of Las Vegas.

“The mixing of aircraft of different capabilities and origins and destinations created in-flight delays,” Davis says. “Separating them resulted in much more efficient flows. The airlines have been very pleased with the result.”

Prior to implementation, MITRE tested all the new designs and procedures in our Aviation Integration, Demonstration, and Experimentation for Aeronautics (IDEA) Lab.

“With all the Metroplex projects, we brought in pilots and air traffic controllers familiar with the procedures and the airspace to test the designs,” says John Brandt, MITRE’s FAA liaison on airspace modernization efforts. The lab gives testers the ability to interact in a simulated operational environment and work with MITRE engineers and subject matter experts to resolve any issues that arise.

“It’s an efficient and cost-effective way to validate the designs and identify any needed modifications before they’re implemented.”

In other words, the IDEA Lab helps the FAA leave gambling to the casinos, not the skies.

More Direct Descents Save Time and Fuel

A key goal of the Metroplex effort has been to reduce fuel burn. One way the design teams have done this—at Las Vegas and elsewhere—is by taking advantage of the sophisticated navigational capabilities of today’s aircraft.

“Most of the aircraft flying into major metropolitan areas are equipped to fly between any two points in space,” Brandt says. “So the Metroplex teams can design shorter and more direct routes for aircraft with these capabilities, which reduces their use of fuel.”

A lot of those fuel savings have been achieved by eliminating level-offs during arrival procedures.

“Rather than stepping the aircraft down from one altitude to another and then leveling off again and again, similar to going down a staircase, we built procedures that allow pilots to throttle back and perform an idle descent all the way to the runway,” Brandt explains. “That burns a lot less fuel.”

Preliminary estimates suggest that the 10 metroplexes completed to date save airspace users $41 million dollars in fuel costs annually. That’s good for the environment, too, since less fuel means reduced carbon dioxide emissions. So far, the Metroplex program has reduced those emissions by 123,000 metric tons per year.

“Those new descent paths produce safety benefits as well,” Davis adds. “By eliminating the level-offs, you’re also eliminating as many as six transmissions from both sides of the microphone. That gives both the pilot and the controller more time to focus on safety.”

With the Las Vegas redesign complete, the Metroplex team is now focused on wrapping up its work on the last of the Metroplex projects—South/Central Florida.

“With that project, we’re currently in the post-implementation phase, where we work with the FAA to ensure the airspace and procedure changes perform as intended and make any necessary adjustments,” Davis says.

Previous Metroplex projects reconfigured the airspace above Washington D.C., Dallas, Houston, Charlotte, Atlanta, Northern California, Southern California, Cleveland and Detroit, and Denver.

“We’re now working to capture everything we’ve learned,” Brandt says. “Just as we applied what we learned on one Metroplex project to the next, we’ll carry our cumulative Metroplex knowledge forward into future airspace modernization projects.”