How Area Navigation (RNAV) revolutionized global airspace | Flightradar24 Blog (2024)

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How Area Navigation (RNAV) revolutionized global airspace | Flightradar24 Blog (1)

Flight Tracker Map > Blog > Aviation explainer series > How Area Navigation (RNAV) revolutionized global airspace

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Chris Lomas
  • Updated: April 25, 2024
  • What is area navigation?
  • What are its benefits compared to traditional navigation?
  • How to track aircraft flying along Airways on flightradar24

Since the foundations of modern commercial aviation were established following the Second World War, aircraft have typically navigated from A to B using a system of terrestrial navigational aids (referred to as ‘Navaids’ or ‘Beacons’). These are connected by a series of airways that act like highways. To put it simply, an aircraft departs an airport, joins the airways system, and follows the most appropriate routing to its destination. Whilst this approach has served the aviation industry well for decades, it has numerous limitations such as the limited range of terrestrial systems. The challenges of increasingly crowded skies, advancements in technology and a renewed focus on sustainability have driven the creation of a more innovative system – Area Navigation.

What is Area Navigation (RNAV)?

The Area Navigation System, or ‘RNAV’, is a concept that allows the navigation of an aircraft along any desired flight path. That makes for a more direct, faster, and ultimately cheaper route to your destination. Air traffic control centers have established RNAV routes which are more direct than the old airways system, and allow aircraft to safely fly closer together.

How does it work?

Area Navigation is made possible by Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS). GNSS is a broad term describing any satellite constellation that provides navigation, positioning, navigation, and timing services. There are five such constellations powered by different countries and regions.

  • GPS – United States
  • QZSS – Japan
  • BEIDOU – China
  • Galileo – Europe
  • Glonas – Russia

These derive highly accurate position data for an aircraft in two and three dimensions, referred to as ‘Lateral Navigation’ or ‘LNAV’ and ‘Vertical Navigation’ or ‘VNAV’. This position data is so accurate because it is not impacted by the range and position limitations of conventional navaids.

What are the benefits of Area Navigation?

There are three key benefits of Area Navigation compared to traditional navigation.

  1. Time and fuel savings.
  2. Reduced dependence on radar vectoring, altitude, and speed assignments allowing a reduction in required ATC radio transmissions, and
  3. More efficient use of airspace.

Thanks to the proliferation of satellite navigation systems globally, the uses and accuracy of RNAV are vast. Depending on the equipment they have on board, pilots can use it for everything from supporting daytime navigation in a Cessna to flying highly accurate instrument approach procedures in an A350. As such it is categorized by accuracy, and there are three types of RNAV.

  1. Basic RNAV – This is required to give a position of within 5 nautical miles, 95% of the time. All aircraft carrying over 30 passengers in European airspace are required to have this capability.
  2. Precision RNAV – This must be able to accurately identify an aircraft’s position within one nautical mile, 95% of the time.
  3. Required Navigation Performance ‘RNP RNAV’ – This combines lateral and vertical navigation to derive a position with an accuracy of less than one nautical mile. For lateral navigation, this can be expected to be accurate down to 0.1 to 0.3 nautical miles.
How Area Navigation (RNAV) revolutionized global airspace | Flightradar24 Blog (3)

The most accurate step – Performance Based Navigation

Performance Based Navigation (PBN) is an initiative that aims to standardize RNAV and RNP specifications around the world. PBN adds more specific guidelines on the accuracy required to use Area Navigation at different stages of flight. Essentially, this combines lateral and vertical navigation to provide a performance below RNP 1, which is less than one mile of accuracy. Location reporting for lateral navigation is expected to be between 0.3 and 0.1 nautical miles, bringing an incredible level of accuracy that allows aircraft to fly accurate approaches using GPS systems. An example of a PBN-based approach being implemented can be seen at Riga (RIX). We experienced this on the flight deck of an AirBaltic A220 first hand.

GNSS powers your flight tracking

Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) technology is fundamental to how Flightradar24 tracks thousands of flights around the world each day. Without global Navigation Satellite Systems, this would not be possible. Not only has GNSS revolutionized navigation, but has also helped to bring flight tracking to you.

Tracking airways on Flightradar24

Whilst the traditional airways system is to be gradually replaced with more customisable, direct routings, a large volume of air traffic still follows this system.

How Area Navigation (RNAV) revolutionized global airspace | Flightradar24 Blog (4)

Flightradar24 features view options that allow you to track aircraft flying along airways, and between beacons and GPS waypoints. Under Map Settings – Aeronautical Charts you can add navaids, low altitude airways and high altitude airways to your map. You can then see aircraft joining, tracking and leaving airways along their journeys.

Open Flightradar24

AirwaysArea NavigationNavigationRNAVRNP

  • Published:June 29, 2023

How Area Navigation (RNAV) revolutionized global airspace | Flightradar24 Blog (5)

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Chris Lomas

Chris is a Commercial Pilot and lover of all things aviation. Based in London, Chris researches and writes articles on what’s happening in the world of aviation for Flightradar24.

More about Chris Lomas

Chris Lomas

Chris is a Commercial Pilot and lover of all things aviation. Based in London, Chris researches and writes articles on what’s happening in the world of aviation for Flightradar24.

More about Chris Lomas

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