Airplanes in a line on the runway

A Move to MARS: Safely Improving Flight Efficiency at Adjacent Airports

By Marlis McCollum

Airports located close together must share airspace, which can lead to operational inefficiencies. The FAA and MITRE are exploring a way to safely improve efficiency—and help get people to their destinations faster.

You’re on a plane headed for a major U.S. metropolis, and you’re getting close. Unbeknown to you and your fellow passengers, however, your landing has been delayed. The pilot must wait until another aircraft lands at a nearby airport before it’s safe to land at your destination.

It’s a scenario that unfolds many times a day in metropolitan areas served by airports located near one another, such as New York’s LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International Airports and New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport, located just 12 miles from midtown Manhattan. The flying public isn’t usually aware of how and why these delays occur, but passengers feel the impact nonetheless. 

When airport capacity is inhibited, fewer flights can be accommodated. Longer flight times mean passengers spend more time getting to their destinations. More time in the air means jets burn more fuel, which increases both airline and passenger costs and expels more aircraft emissions into the environment. And sometimes the need to share airspace prevents airports from using procedures that keep noise levels to a minimum for surrounding communities.

Naturally, safety takes precedence over efficiency or noise-abatement efforts. But what if there were a way to maintain safety while increasing the efficiency of operations at adjacent airports? 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in partnership with MITRE and several other organizations, believes it has found the answer with a concept known as Multiple Airport Route Separation, or MARS.

Taking Advantage of Advances in Navigation Precision

Under current safety requirements, air traffic controllers must keep aircraft spaced at least three nautical miles apart during arrival and departure procedures. But advances in navigation technology aboard many of today’s aircraft may enable regulators to relax those requirements—or “reduce separation”—without sacrificing safety.

“That idea is at the heart of MARS,” says Jeff Shepley, manager of MITRE’s Airspace Strategy and Concepts group. “Aircraft can fly much more precise routes than they once could, and, in fact, the FAA already leverages those capabilities to safely use reduced separation on a daily basis in a variety of scenarios.” 

Now the agency is exploring how to apply this same concept to procedures serving airports near one another.

“At MITRE, we’re conducting the research that will help the FAA determine how to do that safely,” Shepley says.

We use our modeling, simulation, and data analysis capabilities—and feedback from pilots and controllers—to gain insight into these questions.

Will Bachman, MARS Project Leader

MITRE Research Informs Safe Implementation

That research includes human-in-the-loop simulations and data-driven safety analyses to determine the implementation challenges and risks associated with MARS operations. 

“There are a number of complexities involved in shifting from existing procedures to MARS-based operations,” explains project leader Will Bachman. “For example, how often might pilots deviate from the MARS procedures and why? How will MARS procedures affect air traffic controller workload? And how would the interruption of a MARS operations be handled?

“We’re using our modeling, simulation, and data analysis capabilities—and feedback from pilots and controllers in simulated operations—to gain insight into these and other questions.” 

To make that process even more efficient, MITRE deployed a remote cloud-based simulation capability that allows controllers to provide feedback on the operational feasibility of the MARS concept from the convenience of their home facility.

Introducing Procedure Changes for the Benefit of All 

Once the safety analyses are completed, the FAA plans to select a site for the initial application of MARS procedures. To start, the focus will be on aircraft flying approach procedures to closely located airports and traveling in the same general direction.

“That will be just the beginning,” Shepley says. The team plans more research to explore how MARS procedures might be used for various combinations of arrival, departure, and missed-approach paths that are in conflict using current separation standards. Once tests confirm their safety, new MARS procedures can be implemented in an incremental fashion.

“With safety-focused planning, evaluation, and implementation of MARS procedures, we expect regions served by closely located airports to see efficiency improvements in the coming years,” Shepley says. 

“Ultimately, MARS will benefit airports, operators, passengers, controllers, communities, and the environment.”

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