By Terry Wade
LIMA (Reuters) - Stung by higher fuel costs, LAN Airlines flew Latin America's first flight on Thursday using a navigational system from takeoff to landing that it says will save time and money and reduce pollution.
LAN said the Required Navigation Performance system by General Electric will cut 19 miles, 6.3 minutes, 67.5 gallons of fuel and 1,420 pounds of carbon emissions from each flight on its popular Cusco-Lima route, which takes tourists from the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu in the treacherous Andes to the capital on the Pacific Coast.
Though components of the technology have been around since the mid-1990s and are used on landings at some airports around the world, GE said Thursday's flight was unusual because the satellite-based technology was used along the entire journey.
"This provides a level of precision that for all practical purposes is like flying a plane on a railroad track," said Steve Fulton, a former pilot who works for GE Aviation.
Required Navigation Performance (RNP) and its cousin Area Navigation (RNAV) are part of a broader framework called Performance-based Navigation (PBN).
Regulators in the United States and Europe have begun adopting PBN, but implementing it across all airports in crowded markets is complex, industry experts say.
In general, newer planes and systems have navigational capabilities that are often more advanced than traditional radio equipment on the ground, which regulators like the FAA in the United States want to upgrade.
Some U.S. carriers have said the FAA should be more quickly implementing PBN as part of a modernization plan slated to run through 2025.
Southwest Airlines invested $90 million on equipment and training to introduce RNP for approaches in early 2011 but later told Aviation Week the benefits were slow to emerge - partly because RNP approaches weren't being widely authorized by traffic controllers.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. body, has encouraged PBN systems. Supporters of PBN says it eliminates many of the variables along a flight path caused by pilots, weather, and traffic controllers.
IATA, the global group of carriers, said PBN could improve efficiency and reduce emissions but that many airlines wanted to be more sure of financial benefits.
"We see PBN as a good solution, but because it involves a significant investment by airlines, its implementation needs to be based on an operational requirement and supported by a positive business case," an IATA official said.
LAN, which is one of Latin America's biggest carriers and is known for its efficiency, said it has already seen the benefits of a piecemeal strategy that it started using for approaches at airports in Chile and Peru in 2009.
Christian Staiger, LAN's technical leader for RNP, said the airline is now interested in implementing the equipment for all takeoffs and landings in Peru, followed by wider adoption in Chile, and later in Ecuador, Colombia and Brazil.
LAN officials said it is easier to adopt RNP in smaller countries with fewer airports.
"The Chilean and Peruvian authorities are moving at a velocity much faster than the FAA in the United States," said Adolfo Fierro, who manages fuel conservation at LAN.
Chile-based LAN may soon merge with Brazil's largest airline, TAM, to become one of the world's largest carriers. The multibillion-dollar deal has received conditional regulatory approval and is expected to pass a vote by TAM shareholders next month.
LAN said in January its fourth-quarter net profit fell 31.6 percent from a year ago to $112.5 million because of disruptions caused by a volcanic ash cloud in Chile, restructuring costs in Colombia, and higher fuel prices.
GE says the technology, if implemented on a large scale, could greatly reduce congestion, weather-related cancellations, and noise in communities near airports. It would also improve safety.
"There's nothing more valuable in my estimation than having a city pair like we are talking about, Cusco to Lima, in operation to illustrate the concepts we are trying to describe," Fulton said.
"This will provide information and experience that will be very useful in the journey that the FAA is on," he said.
(Additional reporting by Alejandro Lifschitz in Buenos Aires; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)