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The Sky's The Limit

It is time to re-examine this vital, finite resource


The UK is an island nation with a proud trading legacy

In today's world we rely on our aviation industry to connect us with the global market place. Until now we have found room in the air and on the ground to ensure that, even with demand increasing, passengers reach their destinations and goods get to market at an acceptable cost, both financial and environmental.

Until now.

Air traffic at London airports

Future years predicted data (toggle the data table)

We are now running out of space in the air and on the ground to cater for our island's future air travel needs. According to government forecasts[1] the major South East airports will be full by 2030 – resurgent demand for air travel over the last two years means it is now likely we will reach aviation gridlock well before then. The UK's air navigation service provider NATS will handle over 1.14 million flights at the five London airports in 2016, an increase of 40,000 aircraft movements compared to 2015. This summer is scheduled to be the busiest ever.

A new runway will help – but we need to act now if we are to avoid facing, for the first time in our history, a real capacity bottleneck, which will limit our nation's ability to connect to the world and add unacceptable environmental and financial costs to air travel.

It's more important than ever to find new ways to unlock the capacity in the sky above us, if not, air traffic delays are likely to soar to from around 90,000 minutes a year today to over 4 million by 2030, costing airlines over £1 billion and the wider economy much, much more.

YearTotal Air Movements at London Airports
1.24m 1.11m

"Modernising our airspace will enable us to deliver many of the benefits we know our airline customers and local communities want to see. It's a very tough balancing act to provide an infrastructure that enables airlines to reduce their fuel burn and CO2 emission, maximises our finite airspace capacity, keeps the UK connected to the rest of the world and reduces the noise impact on people on the ground. But we are committed to working with our airline customers, local communities, and Government to achieve an outcome that delivers for all."

Martin Rolfe
Chief Executive Officer, NATS

The problem is not new. For the last few decades the UK's aviation community has been constantly innovating to meet demand using the current airport and airspace infrastructure.

NATS has introduced a range of new technologies and procedures to improve airspace efficiency, developed in concert with European partners. For example, by starting to sequence arrivals into Heathrow 350 nautical miles away over Scotland, France and the Netherlands, holding times for aircraft arriving at the airport are being reduced and CO2 emissions have fallen by 15,000 tonnes a year.

Airlines have invested in new modern aircraft, adding more passengers to their existing services rather than adding new frequencies. This has moved more passengers through our airport terminals without necessarily increasing the number of flights that take off and land.[2]

But these measures can only provide a limited amount of new capacity – what is needed now is a fundamental modernisation of the UK's airspace, so airlines can fully exploit the latest fuel-saving, capacity-generating, environmentally-sensitive technologies of the aircraft they fly.

Our current system of airways and approach paths was designed to serve the needs of the 1960s and they are now showing their age. However, due to concerns from some communities close to airports and the resulting Government review of airspace and noise policy plans to modernise have been delayed. We now need a long term, stable policy, and Government support to ensure we can deliver the benefits modernisation can bring.


Flights and passengers in each year across the UK

"Airspace above the airport was designed when the main runway was being developed in the mid-1970s. At that time we had a terminal capacity of 1 million passengers a year; this year we expect to manage 12 million. Lack of airspace capacity has become a cause of congestion on our taxiways and runways and without an effective airspace modernisation programme we will have more delays and more congestion. It will make the passenger experience worse – no one likes delays and queues – and the airport will find it harder to attract new airlines and new routes. Our economic impact modelling shows that if we don't modernise it could hamper our ability to grow, growth which we forecast could deliver an extra half billion pounds to the economic benefits our airport delivers to the local and national economies.

"But if we do, there will be benefits. Working with our partner NATS on the technical and safety case has shown that airspace modernisation will deliver increased stability. Aircraft will be able to fly tighter, more predictable routes which will allow us to work with the community to offer a range of respite flight paths. From the R-NAV trials we have already completed with NATS we know these new tracks will also reduce the track miles our customer airlines will have to fly and reduce separation distances to one minute between aircraft using the runway, increasing capacity at peak times."

Gordon Robertson
Director of Communications, Edinburgh Airport

(Gordon Robertson is leading the airspace design change at Edinburgh Airport)

The UK's airspace was designed to the soundtrack of the Beatles

Today's airspace was designed more than fifty years ago and for a different age, the era of the Boeing 707 the Vickers VC-10 and the Hawker Siddeley Trident. Aircraft flew along fixed airways, following radio navigation beacons, which very rarely offered straight routes from origin to destination airports.

It was never designed to handle over 2 million flights, carrying 220 million people every year. It was designed to support technologies which have been obsolete for many decades – without any consideration of environmental impacts, how airports should be integrated in the air traffic system and how everything we do in the UK would need to be aligned with our neighbours.

"Modern aircraft technology gives us a range of options for the way we manage flights into our airports. At London Stansted, which lies in a relatively sparsely populated area, it allows aircraft to fly more accurately and more consistently so we can concentrate aircraft movements on a small number of routes. In more populated areas such as Manchester it offers the potential to design multiple routes to provide local residents with respite from the effects of noise.

"But the way airspace is currently configured often constrains us from fully exploiting this technology; at Stansted, for example, on one runway approach we're not able to fly a continuous descent approach, which can lower aircraft noise above communities and reduce fuel burn and emissions.

"In consultation with NATS, the Civil Aviation Authority and local communities we have been trialling performance-based navigation (PBN) – one of key the technologies which will allow for more environmentally sensitive operations into and out of airports – at Stansted. We have worked very closely with local communities to understand how we should adopt this technology. By applying these procedures we are reducing the number of people we over-fly by up to 85%; and it is really encouraging to see that 70% of responses to consultation from people living around the airport have been positive about the planned changes. People want us to adopt PBN.

"There is another reason why we need to consider airspace modernisation now.

"Over the last few years we have significant growth at our airports and that is imposing pressures on the airspace system. At Manchester in the last three years we've grown by 3.7 million passengers and at Stansted we've grown by 5.7 million passengers. This is increasing pressure on the airspace system and we need, as an industry, to work together to improve the efficiency of our operations.

"Airspace is the unseen, invisible infrastructure that's a vital part of the whole system. We can only realise the benefits that come from our investment in the physical infrastructure if we deal with these constraints in the invisible airspace infrastructure, too."

Neil Robinson
CSR Director, MAG

"On-time performance is vitally important for us and, obviously, for all our customers. So we share the concerns of NATS about the prospect of having a 1960s infrastructure in the year 2030. We need to fly as quickly and efficiently as possible so that we can keep our fares low for our passengers and minimise our environmental impact.

"We have recently announced we will be buying 12 Airbus A350s that will join the fleet between 2019 and 2021; they are the very latest generation aircraft which will allow us to fly more efficiently than could have been possible 30 years ago. But we need the airspace infrastructure to be able to support that, to maximise the benefits of these highly efficient aircraft, first of all in terms of the carbon and the noise they produce but also in terms of the way the pilots fly them. It would be incredibly frustrating not be able to maximise these efficiencies because the airspace design does not support new procedures and capabilities.

"It is about the UK's international competitiveness – there's no point in having new capacity on the ground if you don't have an airspace modernisation programme to go with it."

Nathan Stower
VP External Affairs and Sustainability,
Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd

The government is committed to supporting airspace modernisation through the Future Airspace Strategy (FAS) but the programme has been delayed as we await a new airspace and noise policy from government.

So representatives of the UK's airports and airlines, together with NATS have launched our 'The Sky's The Limit' campaign to urge the government to back an airspace modernisation programme for the UK now, before it is too late.

The UK is running out of time – to manage not only the expected number of aircraft but also the complexity of the future airspace challenge. By 2030, there will be 3 million flights per year in UK airspace. Those flights will need to be managed in new, environmentally sensitive ways – that means less noise, better local air quality and tighter controls on greenhouse forming gas emissions; NATS was the first air navigation service provider in the world to set itself a carbon dioxide emissions reduction target – to reduce CO2 emissions per flight by 10% between 2006 and 2020.

The users of our airspace are also evolving. Military and civil drones will be flying alongside future generations of airliners and the only way we can face these all these challenges is for everyone in the industry and across Government to work together, within a common, shared airspace.


flights per year in UK airspace by 2030

"One thing is clear though, making no changes to our airspace is not an option. This isn't a problem that's years away from manifesting itself – we're feeling it today and the time for action and commitment is now."

Martin Rolfe
Chief Executive Officer, NATS


flights per year in UK airspace by 2030

What airspace modernisation will mean

  • A new way of working together, with aviation partners and society. New routes can be designed to provide steeper climbs and descents, while new technology now allows aircraft to follow routes to a much greater level of accuracy. This will allow us to significantly reduce the number of people impacted by noise but will also meant the possibility of multiple routes to distribute noise, so the industry needs to work with communities to understand what kind of outcome is acceptable to them.
  • A reduced environmental impact and a stronger economic base. NATS is one of the prime ATM movers in the Single European Sky programme, developed to improving the efficiency of ATM across Europe, reducing CO2 emissions by 18 million tonnes and providing 320,000 extra jobs and €419 billion boost to Europe's GDP. The technical pillar of the SES – the SES ATM Research (SESAR) programme – is building interoperable technology and procedures that will support our modernised airspace and enable aircraft to fly their optimal routings, guided by air traffic controllers using state-of-the-art, 4D-trajectory, flight-tracking tools.
  • More airspace capacity to handle forecast growth. By automating many of the routine tasks currently undertaken by controllers, future ATM systems will allow more aircraft to be safely handled. For example, the new Interoperability Through European Collaboration (iTEC) flight data processing system fuses information on aircraft location and intent, and allows computers to suggest simultaneous optimal profiles for hundreds of aircraft to balance capacity and demand in new automated ways.

"While airports and aircraft have developed beyond recognition in the last 60 years, our motorways in the sky haven't fundamentally changed since the 1960s. To use a modern analogy, the design of UK's air corridors have been stuck in an analogue era, while the technology driving the rest of the aviation sector is going digital.

"With more passengers and air freight using UK air services than ever before, and with air traffic movements set to ramp up dramatically in the years ahead, there has never been a more pressing need to modernise the UK's airspace. Modernising the UK's airspace will bring substantial economic, connectivity and environmental benefits, and help deliver better and more efficient journeys for passengers. Simply, we cannot afford not to act on this if we want a growing aviation sector in the future, to the wider benefit of UK plc, its economy and connectivity."

Darren Caplan
Chief Executive, Airport
Operators Association (AOA)

The sky above us is one of our most precious resources we have – we need to both protect and optimise its potential if we are to be able to meet the aviation challenges of the future. Our airspace modernisation plans will allow us to do exactly that.

The sky's the limit:

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