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FAA completes redesign of Houston's highways in the sky to save fuel, time and cut pollution

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HOUSTON - The Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday it completed a redesign of the Houston region's highways in the sky, the first of several national projects designed to save money, fuel and time while cutting pollution.

Houston is the first NextGen project to be completed, part of a transformation of the nation's radar-based air traffic control system into a more modern satellite-based program. The redesign of the region's freeways and exit ramps in the sky, partly through better use of GPS technology, is expected to reduce up to 648,000 nautical miles flown annually, saving up to 3 million gallons of fuel and reducing carbon emissions by as much as 31,000 metric tons.

Houston's project was one of 14 infrastructure projects nationwide selected by the Obama administration to be fast-tracked. It was launched in January 2012 and was expected to take three years to complete, but by streamlining reviews, the FAA said it was able to wrap it up in 30 months.

"The NextGen Metroplex we are implementing today is an example for the entire country of the difference we can make with the help of the federal government and the way we get it done — six months ahead of schedule," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

The cities chosen for the national program have multiple airports and heavy traffic — including North Texas, Washington, D.C., northern California, Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina. Seattle was a forerunner to the national infrastructure program with its project Greener Skies, which was completed in 2013.

Since January 2010, part of the satellite-based control system has been used over the Gulf of Mexico, where aircraft that have high-tech equipment can constantly broadcast location, altitude and speed. This allows the FAA to provide radar-like services to areas that previously had no coverage.

Among the 61 strategies identified by the FAA, pilots arriving at Houston's two airports will be able to almost idle their engines while landing "like sliding down a banister," the statement said, enabling planes to reduce fuel consumption and air emissions since they will no longer have to level off repeatedly to co-ordinate with air traffic controllers.

During takeoff, satellite-based procedures will provide predictable flight paths, allowing planes to climb steadily and reach a cruising altitude more quickly.

The FAA has also been able to identify more efficient routes between Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, cutting miles flown through a busy corridor.

The project also uses side-by-side arrivals at the region's largest airport — George Bush Intercontinental — to increase efficiency and allow for more direct routes."Air traffic controllers strongly support the integration of new technologies that help enhance the safety and efficiency of our National Airspace System," said Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

The FAA worked with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and the Houston Airport System to complete the project.

"This redesigned airspace allows us to take full advantage of technology we already have on our aircraft, while simultaneously reducing fuel burn and emissions," United Airlines vice chairman and chief revenue officer Jim Compton said in a statement.

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Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP

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