Find out about our innovative way for measuring the environmental performance of the UK airspace network.
3Di, which stands for three dimension inefficiency score, is a pioneering metric developed by NATS to measure the environmental efficiency of UK airspace. The metric, which originally took two and half years to develop, came about after discussions with our customers on how they would like to see us measured.
In 2012, 3Di was officially adopted to financially incentivise NATS’ environmental performance as part of our regulatory licence to operate air traffic control – a world first.
In 2014 we implemented new enhancements to 3Di and agreed new more stringent targets with our customers and our UK regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
We know that our airlines’ preferred flight paths include a continuous climb from their departure airport to cruising altitude, followed by a continuous descent back to the ground, with the full profile taking the most direct route. The 3Di metric helps NATS measure the deviation from the preferred profile to the actual radar track of each flight in UK airspace.
3Di allows NATS to establish a clear indication of the environmental efficiency of the service it provides, track its performance over time and identify opportunities to reduce aviation’s environmental impact, while at the same time reducing airline fuel costs.
This webpage provides a description of the 3Di flight efficiency metric and reports on NATS progress against targets.
Since its launch 3Di has been recognised by numerous external awards:
- Business in the Community’s 2015 Big Tick Award for Sustainable Products and Services (re-validated after demonstrating further improvement)
- Business in the Community’s 2014 Big Tick Award for Sustainable Products and Services
- Jane’s ATC 2012 Environment Award
- Transport Times 2012 Award for Contribution to Sustainable Transportation
- The Operational Research Society’s President’s Medal 2011 for the best practical application of operational research in industry
How is the score calculated?
3Di measures the combined inefficiencies within the horizontal and vertical dimensions of flight. In the horizontal plane it compares the actual radar ground track against the most direct great circle track within UK airspace.
The difference between these two distances, which describes the ‘additional miles flown’, defines the inefficiency in the horizontal plane. A new dimension to 3Di has now been incorporated in the horizontal plane. This looks at the excess track extension added to the whole flight – encouraging NATS to consider how its airspace boundary entry and exit points may affect airline fuel burn across multiple airspace regions. The overall aim is to provide aircraft with the most direct route across their whole flight profile.
In the vertical plane, the metric compares the actual vertical profile against the airlines’ preferred trajectory shown above. Vertical inefficiency has been simplified to the amount of level flight that occurs below the airlines’ last Filed Flight Level (FFL) and the vertical deviation from FFL. Level flight at low altitude is more fuel penalising than at higher levels so the more time spent in level flight below the FFL the more penalising for 3Di. If we exceed FFL then 3Di is zero (good) for the cruise element. As aircraft performance and in particular fuel flow rates vary across the different phases of flight, the metric applies different weightings for level flight occurring in climb, cruise, and descent.
All of these factors are then combined to give a single 3Di score for each flight in UK airspace.
- Every commercial flight, every day of the year will have a specific 3Di Score calculated. At the end of each year all the scores are combined to give a single annual average score for NATS and compared to targets set by our UK regulator in consultation with our airline customers.
- Scores run from 0, which represents zero inefficiency to over 100.
- As a result of enhancements to the metric in 2014 both 3Di scores and targets have been re-calibrated to reflect improved accuracy. Updated average 3Di score averages have changed and are now around 30 points, circa 7 points higher than previously (see ‘New targets and enhancements’). In 2014 the average score with the updated 3Di metric was 29.7.
- The UK CAA has set a performance scheme that targets improvements to the 3Di score over the period to 2019.
- NATS’ target is to reduce 3Di from 29.7 to 27.7 by calendar year end 2019.
How can NATS influence the 3Di score?
The 3Di score is mostly influenced by the underlying structure of UK airspace. NATS operates some of the busiest airspace in the world and our primary consideration is to ensure the safe and expeditious flow of air traffic under our control.
The congested nature of UK airspace means that sometimes aircraft are not always able to obtain their most direct routes or most optimal climb and descent profiles.
The 3Di metric has been designed so that it drives behaviours in NATS to deliver long term improvements in flight profiles and related fuel burn and CO2.
The biggest improvements will be delivered by changes to the design and operation of airspace and by improving access to shared airspace.
Day to day changes to the way our air traffic controllers direct aircraft can also have a positive impact on the 3Di score, and fuel burn and emissions performance.
Our challenge will be to do this in the face of factors that affect the score negatively, such as the volume of flights within our network, bad weather and limited runway capacity which leads to aircraft holding. Adapting our operation to become more resilient to these external factors will help drive the score down.
Ultimately, NATS will influence the 3Di metric by delivering more aircraft closer to the airlines’ preferred flight trajectories, including:
- More continuous climb and descent operations to/from higher levels
- More direct routes across UK airspace
- Reduced airborne holding at destination airports
- Working with neighbouring Air Traffic Control providers and military airspace users to deliver more direct routes across the whole flight profile
- Achieving or exceeding customers preferred cruise levels (FFL)
- Working to improve the score from the previous year by looking at all aspects of inefficiency, whether caused by NATS or other actors, and working collaboratively to reduce it.
NATS 3Di Performance Q2 2020
Our regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, has set a challenging target for our airspace efficiency in 2020, with a target 3Di value of 27.8. With air traffic movements in UK airspace dramatically reduced as a result of the impact of covid-19 the 3Di scores for April to June were a good deal lower, in the range 15-17.5 points. This is because during periods of low traffic levels, air traffic controller have the opportunity to provide more optimum routeings, smoother climbs and descents, reducing fuel burn, CO2 emissions and our 3Di scores.
The NATS 3Di score at the end of the second quarter of 2020 was 25.6 making our performance 2.2 points ahead of our regulatory target.
We recognise that as an industry we absolutely have to ‘build back better’. The Government is clear on environmental priorities and that the aviation industry has to start doing things differently. We are working to understand how we can build the airspace efficiency improvements we’re seeing now safely into the air traffic system as traffic returns. We continue to identify and target improvement in 3Di hotspots across the network. We are improving the accessibility of 3Di performance reporting data for our air traffic control employees to enable them to manage airspace more efficiently, day-to-day. In addition to this we are regularly briefing our operational staff on the best ways to safely improve the flight profiles of the aircraft they control and in doing so, realise emissions reductions. These initiatives are on top of our ongoing focus on airspace and procedural changes to reduce CO2 emissions. Further information is provided under “Our Environmental Strategy”.
Our Environmental Strategy
Our environmental strategy is based on delivering long-term structural improvements to airspace efficiency, as well as focusing on a targeted programme of shorter-term enhancements.
Last year NATS made significant steps towards reducing arrival holding through the implementation of a descent speed trial. Reducing holding by slowing aircraft down en route reduces the need for aircraft to ‘hold’ close to an airport, circling, burning extra fuel and generating more emissions. During 2014 NATS focused its efforts on delivering improved airspace efficiency. We delivered:
- A number of small scale airspace changes
- Extending the flexible use of airspace with military airspace users
- Further improvements in continuous descent approaches and improved departure profiles
- Additional procedures and tactical changes to deliver optimised trajectories
- Environmentally focused network management improvements
By the end of 2014 NATS had delivered in excess of 300 changes to drive airspace efficiency since 2006. The focus on this mixture of short term tactical and procedural measures to improve airspace whilst continuing with a programme of larger scale structural changes continues into this regulatory period 2015 – 2019.