In announcing the rule change Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration said it will make U.S. high-altitude airspace consistent with that over Europe, Australia, Northern Canada and most of the North Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Caribbean and South
American countries will join the United States and Southern Canada in implementing the new flight-separation rules, the FAA said.
Planes will be able to fly with at least 1,000 feet between them and planes above or below them when they're between 29,000 and 41,000 feet. Now the distance must be 2,000 feet.
"This rule offers a combination of greater aviation safety, capacity and cost efficiency," said FAA Administrator Marion Blakey.
The narrower separations will improve safety by giving controllers more options when rerouting flights around bad weather, the FAA said.
The change also will increase the likelihood that pilots will get permission from controllers to fly at the altitude they want because more options will be available, said William Shumann, FAA spokesman. That's important for airlines because flying at optimal altitudes saves fuel, their second highest operating cost. And different planes are more efficient at different altitudes, Shumann said.
The new separation standards will also give pilots more options to fly the route they want because more altitudes will make more lanes available, he said.
Airlines will have to install more accurate altimeters and autopilot systems to fly closer together. The FAA estimates the cost will be $869 million, which will be more than offset by estimated fuel savings of $5.3 billion through 2016.
"A lot of commercial aircraft already have the equipment," Shumann said.
By Leslie Miller