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A quiet evolution in airspace management

In a world where the next big solution is constantly being sought and only the most innovative projects get celebrated, there is ongoing methodological work to make an impact on one of the greatest challenges we all face – climate change.

For many years air traffic controllers, airspace designers, engineers and scientists at NATS have been working on a project that is literally invisible – to reduce air traffic management (ATM) related CO2 emissions, by making UK airspace more efficient. It takes considerable effort, collaboration and sustained activity over time. Nevertheless, the outcome could not be more important. NATS would like to share its airspace efficiency group story on how it is improving the skies above Britain.

As international climate change negotiations continue, there is growing focus on the aviation industry, which is outside the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. This means that the 2015 Paris climate change agreement does not apply to the aviation industry. Instead, States meeting at the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) are responsible for agreeing action on aviation greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. At the recent ICAO Assembly, a deal was reached to cap CO2 emissions at 2020 with offsetting. The deal represents significant progress, as traditionally States have been extremely reluctant to agree on climate change mitigation policy for international aviation at ICAO. However the deal falls short of a complete solution, with many details yet to be confirmed, the choice of baseline differs markedly from UNFCCC's 1990 and aviation's non-CO2 impacts remain a concern. As a result, CO2 emission reductions remain important for NATS.

After safety, airlines' priority for NATS is fuel / CO2 emission savings and flight efficiency. NATS works closely with airlines and flight planners to identify airspace hotspots & inefficiencies and implement improvements. As custodians of UK airspace, NATS has a special responsibility to ensure this is as efficient as possible to enable the industry to reduce its climate change impact.

Our main contribution: reducing fuel burn for aircraft operators

NATS wants to reduce the climate impact of aviation and reduce ATM related CO2 emissions where it has control. Its responsibility is shared with all those who use and support the airspace. NATS must work closely with airspace users to ensure the network is fit for the expectations of the public, passengers and the aviation industry. So what can NATS do to help?

It is quite simple – make sure aircraft can fly the most efficient route between A and B and burn the least amount of fuel, from the moment the engines are started to the moment they are turned off. In practice, it is actually quite difficult due to a number of factors, including weather and the amount of daily traffic passing through UK airspace and airports. For an idea of what this looks like, take a look at what the traffic was like yesterday on the Airspace+ page.

Interview with Matt Harris, Air Traffic Control Officer


flights travel through NATS managed airspace over the UK and North Atlantic every day

We are global pioneers of environmental air traffic management

NATS was the first air navigation service provider in the world to set itself an ATM related CO2 emissions reduction target in 2008. NATS committed to reducing average CO2 emissions per flight by 10% by 2020 – over a 2006 baseline. Through this NATS is not only taking responsibility for its climate impact, but also responding to the demand from its customers for reduced fuel burn and from the public for CO2 emission reductions.

Tough targets lead to innovative solutions

One of NATS' early initiatives was a perfect flight demonstration in 2010, highlighting what could be achieved when optimising the airspace network. Since then, NATS has brought together a number of pioneering concepts and technologies aimed at reducing CO2 emissions. NATS is now focused on reaching its 2020 CO2 emissions reduction target – but it's going to be difficult, with no precedent to follow and the plan continues to evolve in response to customers' priorities. This will require innovative thinking and further, deeper collaboration with all its stakeholders. However, NATS has the skills and expertise to continue to pursue this ambitious target.

NATS is commited to reducing average CO2 per flight by 2020 by


(compared to 2006 baseline)

One of the core initiatives began in 2009, with the establishment of airspace efficiency groups at both of NATS' operational centres – at Prestwick in Ayrshire, Scotland and Swanwick in Hampshire, England. Air traffic controllers and airspace managers in these groups reviewed upper airspace to identify and implement small improvements in up to 80 sectors. Representatives from each 'Watch' championed fuel efficiency, helping identify opportunities for improvement and drive action to meet their fuel burn / CO2 emission reduction targets.

Together with airline and airport customer ideas, these groups have identified and worked on hundreds of potential upper airspace improvements. All of these ideas are captured in a central database, which provides a framework to help review, prioritise and deliver near-term fuel burn and CO2 savings.

331 relatively minor upper airspace improvements have been developed and implemented since 2009. Broadly, these relate to three categories: vertical airspace, horizontal airspace and the standing agreements which dictate how, when and where aircraft can access airspace. For example, vertical improvements include reviewing how standard instrument departure routes from airports interface with upper airspace sectors. Horizontal improvements include designing routes for use through airspace when the military are not using it. Standing agreement improvements include reviewing or removing controls on individual airways where appropriate.


minor airspace improvements have been implemented, focusing on three areas: vertical airspace, horizontal airspace and the standing agreements which dictate how, when and where aircraft can access NATS controlled airspace

"One of the most recent Airspace Efficiency Group projects has been to change the procedure for inbound aircraft at Manchester airport, which will save 3,463 tonnes CO2 per annum. A query came up at a Flight Operations, Performance and Safety Committee meeting at Manchester airport, where a number of airline operators asked why their aircraft were always instructed to descend to FL80 by air traffic controllers, when the current Standard Arrival Route (STAR) procedure indicates 7,000 ft altitude. There was a discrepancy between the STAR and the current Manual of Air Traffic Services II procedure, which specifies 8,000 ft altitude at DAYNE waypoint. This query was first reviewed by the Prestwick AEG to identify the problem, who then worked with the Airspace Design team to develop a solution, before engaging the Analytics team to calculate the fuel/CO2 emission benefits. In this example, the revised solution was to amend (STAR) Plates to inform airlines that they should expect 8,000 ft altitude as the lowest holding level, in effect raising the bottom of the hold by 1,000 ft. Following investigation, the Prestwick Airspace Efficiency Group approached Manchester airport to confirm that they were happy for NATS to progress the change to the STAR procedure and it was implemented in the AIRAC cycle in August 2016. As a result of this project, further potential improvements were identified and are now being investigated."

Christopher Dare
Manager ATC Development
Systemised Airspace Design, Prestwick Centre

Watch the animation

Improving environmental performance means precise measuring

In tandem with this work, a governance panel was established to ensure use of consistent, robust methodologies for calculating and capturing fuel / CO2 emission changes in support of NATS' environmental airspace targets. This governance panel is part of NATS' environmental management system.

The airspace efficiency groups work with the airspace procedures teams to select and deliver the ideas that are viable and offer greatest potential fuel / CO2 emissions savings. Each idea or proposal requires investigation, analysis, new procedures, safety checks and validation, before approval and release. Each improvement then goes into airline's flight planning tools and is automatically available for them to fly. This allows airlines not just to fly shorter routes and minimise fuel burn, but also to carry less fuel for their overall journey.

Interview with Sarah White, Air Traffic Control Officer

The outcome of this work is to make our airspace network more efficient.

In 2016 average ATM related CO2 emissions per flight were down


compared to 2006 as a result of minor airspace improvements, new controller tools and other airspace projects

We can accurately predict the impact of our initiatives

NATS also uses an airspace performance metric, known as 3Di, to measure the efficiency of each commercial flight in UK airspace. This multi award-winning metric allows NATS to see the effectiveness of changing airspace procedures, as well as tactical interventions on the day by air traffic controllers. Improving airspace design and procedures allows airlines to fuel plan more efficiently, while improvements to how NATS tactically manages traffic on a daily basis helps airlines save additional fuel / CO2 emissions during the flight.

The environmental benefits of air traffic management

Since 2008 NATS has cumulatively enabled savings of:

7.7 million tonnes
CO2 emissions

2.4 million
tonnes jet fuel

£1.4 billion worth
of jet fuel

NATS is responsible for doing all it can to reduce ATM related CO2 emissions from the services it provides. Thanks to the efforts from air traffic controllers, airspace designers, engineers and scientists at NATS, as well as its airline, airport and military customers, NATS has enabled savings of 7.7 million tonnes of CO2 emission since 2008, equating to £1.4 billion in airline fuel costs. By working closely with all of its stakeholders to identify, plan and implement future airspace improvements NATS will do even more.

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