Tom George, AOPA Alaska Regional Manager
IFR pilots should look for changes on the Low Altitude Enroute Charts across Alaska. In the September 8th chart cycle, the FAA added or modified thirteen IFR T-Routes in the state, with an additional twenty-three routes yet to be added over the next several cycles. These routes look different from conventional nav-aid to nav-aid routes and are specifically designed to snake through terrain in some locations, helping provide the lowest possible Minimum Enroute Altitudes (MEAs). This effort results from a significant amount of work done by the FAA in collaboration with AOPA, the Alaska Airmen’s Association, Alaska Air Carriers Association, and other industry stakeholders.
As the old Non-Directional Beacons (NDBs) “age out” of the FAA’s inventory, the airways they anchor will also be decommissioned. Fortunately, we can now take advantage of GPS-based T-Routes to replace them. When the FAA approached AOPA several years ago, we and other industry partners agreed to look at the old route structure and participate in a working group to “modernize” it. This culminated with a meeting in May of 2019 where routes were nominated and discussed for possible development. One of our objectives was to obtain the lowest possible MEAs, helping general aviation aircraft avoid icing conditions to the greatest extent possible – even if it meant flying longer segments in some cases. Fortunately, with WAAS-based GPS, we are now no longer limited to direct point-to-point routes over long distances and can instead define routes with shorter segments that follow lower terrain. A look at some of the charts reveals some very different routes today.
More work ahead
While these routes may snake through terrain laterally, there are significant areas where the lack of radio coverage forces the MEAs higher, to allow communication with ATC. The FAA is continuing to evaluate this situation, as they understand the safety benefits of providing options for those of us that don’t fly high-performance equipment capable of reaching the flight levels. Another effort is underway to re-examine regions of Alaska that are defined as mountainous. The maps used to make these determinations many years ago were made with lower-quality maps than we have today. Areas that are designated mountainous require an additional thousand feet of clearance above terrain along IFR routes. Using modern, more detailed maps and geographic information system analysis tools may allow the MEAs of IFR routes in some parts of the state to be lowered. This is another way to help keep aircraft out of icing conditions.
AOPA realizes that, where possible, and for aircraft suitably equipped, controllers are issuing “direct-to” clearances and not using airways. The route structure is being developed, however, to provide a framework for us to obtain lower MEA altitudes and for times when, for other reasons, direct-to clearances won’t work. We would like to hear from pilots using these new airways to better understand how well they are working. Please send your observations to email@example.com. And watch for more changes to the IFR system in the months ahead!
Tom George serves as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Regional Manager for Alaska. He resides in Fairbanks and flies a Cessna 185. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-695-2092. This story was previously published at www.aopa.org.