Traffic Flow Management (TFM)

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FAA's New CTOP Initiative Aims to Reduce Airspace Congestion

December 13, 2012

Anyone caught waiting for an instrument departure clearance, with the engines turning, knows firsthand how crowded skies in the busiest areas of the National Airspace System often cause significant delays to flights across the country. In 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is slated to implement a new traffic management initiative known as the Collaborative Trajectory Options Program (CTOP), which will better balance this demand with capacity.

Under a CTOP initiative, operators submit alternative routes of their choice around or away from a constraint, thus providing additional options for air traffic controllers to expedite flights away from congested airspace. Flights that have submitted a trajectory option set (TOS) could be exempt from ground delays or in-flight reroutes associated with such constraints.

"CTOP has been rolled out in phases, with the initial deployment having already occurred in spring 2012," said Jim McClay with NBAA Air Traffic Services and an industry partner on the FAA team that developed the program. "That laid the internal groundwork within the FAA to allow its systems to run a CTOP, as well as the framework to eventually allow the industry to submit TOSs," McClay, who is featured in an FAA video on CTOP procedures, added.

Review an FAA video on CTOP.

The focus now has shifted to finalizing CTOP guidelines, McClay continued, and educating air traffic managers and the industry about how CTOP will be utilized ahead of the targeted September 2013 implementation date. The program will mean different things to commercial airlines and business aircraft operators.

"For the business aircraft operator, submitting TOSs in response to a CTOP being issued will require extra work, and can be time-intensive," McClay cautioned. "Air carriers have dispatchers to handle that, but in the general aviation community, pilots themselves, or third-party flight planning services, are usually responsible for flight planning and flight plan filing. The average business aircraft operator will almost certainly need assistance to participate in CTOP."

McClay encourages operators to educate themselves about how CTOP works and research their options in dealing with the new procedure.

"Pilots should also be in touch with their flight plan service provider to find out if they intend to support CTOP initiatives, and what kind of interface will be available to operators to submit TOSs," McClay said. "If they find out their provider does not have any plans to participate in CTOP or provide an interface, they need to determine whether they should seek alternative options."

While CTOP initiatives will impact all operators, participation through the submission of TOSs is not mandatory, McClay added, though it should be considered if operators wish to avoid protracted delays.

"The real downside to not participating is that you may be susceptible to extended ground delays or extensive airborne reroutes," he said. "If there's a constraint in the airspace somewhere, and you have only filed a single flight plan that takes you through that constraint, your only options are to accept a ground delay or manually cancel and re-file a flight plan that takes you outside the constraint. That can quickly become a laborious process.

"If you are participating in a CTOP and have submitted a TOS with multiple route options that you would be willing to consider to fly around the constraint, however, that [the re-routing] is all done automatically. As a constraint appears, you will automatically be put on a route you have already pre-selected to move you around the constraint."

A comprehensive guide to CTOP is available to NBAA Members (password required).