Fliers arriving in the Baltimore region this holiday season may notice smoother descents into BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, while residents in Towson and other area suburbs might hear a bit less noise overhead.
Thanks to new state-of-the-art satellite technology installed at the Anne Arundel County airport this month, arriving planes from the northwest now are able to drop from cruising altitude to the runway in a "smooth, continuous arc," rather than the "traditional staircase descent" they've used in the past, the Federal Aviation Administration said this week.
The technology is part of the nation's NextGen system that the FAA, which handles air traffic control, has been tasked with rolling out at airports across the country, to the tune of $40 billion in federal and airline funding.
The system will eventually take BWI and other major airports from 1940s radar technology "basically to what we all have in our pockets with GPS," said Paul Wiedefeld, the airport's CEO.
"I think it's something that's decades late," he said — and he's not alone.
Last week, several members of Congress expressed frustration at a House Transportation Committee hearing with what they perceived to be the slow pace of the FAA's NextGen rollout.
The FAA responded in part Sunday by promoting the Nov. 13 launch of the satellite technology at BWI, which it says makes the Washington region "the first in the nation to have three state-of-the-art, satellite-based highways in the sky running side by side by side, each dedicated to one of the three major airports in the region."
"The national capital region is reaping the benefits of NextGen and this announcement further highlights how the federal government is making a difference," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.
Wiedefeld said BWI's position in the region, which also includes Joint Base Andrews Airport, made the need for improvement even greater than in other areas of the country.
"Anything they can do to basically make that easier for everybody, both the pilots and the air traffic controllers, is a good thing, because it's a complicated airspace," he said.
Michael Huerta, the FAA's administrator, said in a statement on the BWI launch that the "whole point of NextGen is to get air travelers to their destinations safely and on time," which is "never more important than during the busy holiday season."
The so-called Optimized Profile Descent routes allow airlines to save time in the air, increase the likelihood of on-time arrivals and departures, and reduce fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, officials said.
The FAA estimated airlines will burn at least 2.5 million fewer gallons of fuel and emit 25,000 fewer metric tons of carbon dioxide in the region's skies annually.
Wiedefeld said that noise will also be cut in areas where planes used to make "step downs" in their descents, including over Towson. "The stepdowns create quite a bit of noise," he said.
Southwest Airlines — BWI's predominant carrier — questioned the benefits of the program to date.
"The premise of NextGen procedures is to create greater efficiencies through fuel conserving descents and reductions in miles flown, as well as a reduction in greenhouse gases and noise," said Rick Dalton, Southwest's director of airspace and flow management, in a statement. "Early indicators at BWI, one of the busiest airports, suggest that the new procedures are not delivering those results and are adding complexities within our operation. We will continue to evaluate the procedures and collect data on perceived efficiencies moving forward."
Future work will introduce satellite-based departure routes at BWI, the FAA said, though a spokesman said he did not have a specific date for the expansion.
Officials at BWI said the airport has also made recent progress in its multiyear project to bring its runways up to federal standards by the end of next year.
On Saturday, the airport reopened one of its primary commercial runways, which has been closed since July for reconstruction, for the Thanksgiving travel period, when AAA Mid-Atlantic has estimated 72,800 Marylanders will fly between Wednesday and Sunday.
Additional work on the runway will require subsequent closures through the end of the year, but flight disruptions are not expected.