Understanding airspace

Our invisible infrastructure

What is airspace?

Every day, around 7,000 aircraft fly above our heads in the UK’s skies.

NATS manages a complex network of routes, which we often call our 'invisible infrastructure', that helps all of the UK’s airspace users - leisure, commercial, cargo and military - to operate safely in the sky.

Watch our video here to understand a little more about what airspace is, and how it works.


How is it managed?

Who manages the UK’s airspace can appear complicated.

There are a number of stakeholders involved. These include; the Department for Transport (DfT), the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), NATS, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Eurocontrol — as well as airports and airlines — who all have key roles to play with clear areas of responsibility.

This short video explains who does what. You can find out more about these organisations by following the links below.

What do Controllers do?

Whenever you travel on a commercial aircraft, you're being looked after by an unseen team of Air Traffic Controllers, more commonly known as ATCOs.

Some work in an airport’s Air Traffic Control Tower but the majority are based in our Control Centres where they help to guide your aircraft quickly and safely through the sky.

Our highly skilled Controllers use tools, technologies and procedures to manage aircraft safely and efficiently. These commonly include the use of SIDs, STARs and vectoring. Find out more about what ATCOs do, and how they do it, here.

Standard Instrument Departures

When aircraft take off from major airports, they follow a Standard Instrument Departure (SID) route. These strike a balance between terrain and obstacle avoidance, noise abatement and airspace management considerations.

Standard Terminal Arrival Routes

When aircraft begin their descent towards an airport, they leave the airways structure and join a Standard Terminal Arrival Route (STAR). Each airport has multiple STARs to allow them to manage their arrivals efficiently.


To keep the airspace running smoothly, Controllers often need to take aircraft off their planned paths and manage them independently, particularly in congested areas or if they need to avoid bad weather. This is known as Vectoring.

Plane Talking

Have you ever wondered how a plane gets from A to B?

Plane Talking focuses on one flight among the thousands we handle every day. And it’s one of the shortest - the BA shuttle from Heathrow to Manchester.

The interactive visualisation shows the communication between ATCOs and pilots at every stage of the flight; from the pilot requesting start up and push back at Heathrow to finally parking on stand in Manchester.

Plane Talking

Airspace Explorer

Airspace Explorer is our flight tracking and airspace education app. It is the only app to use UK radar data to show aircraft flying over mainland UK.

The app also provides Flight Information Regions and Sectors in 2D and 3D so you can see how our airspace is structured. 

It's free and available for iPad now - so what are you waiting for - go get it and explore the sky!

Airspace Explorer

The future of airspace

The tools, technologies and procedures we use to manage air traffic also have a direct impact on the number of aircraft we can safely manage, and how and where they fly.

Modernising airspace, which means both route design and new tools and technologies, will make air traffic management more efficient, helping reduce the impact air traffic has on local communities and the environment, and supporting future growth.

You can learn more about the future of our airspace here.


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