UK

UK flight industry group urges airspace modernisation

Air traffic controller at Heathrow Image copyright NATS/PA

The UK is facing a major increase in flight delays if the way airspace is controlled is not modernised, leading industry figures have warned.

The group says existing structures are outdated and unable to cope with the expected increase in aviation by 2030.

Flight paths need to be redrawn and more satellite navigation used instead of ground-based radio beacons, it says.

The call comes ahead of a Department for Transport consultation next year into managing the UK's airspace.

The coalition, which calls itself Sky's The Limit, includes the chief executives of air traffic control provider National Air Traffic Control Service (Nats), the Airport Operators Association and trade body Airlines UK.

It calls on the government and MPs to support the changes, describing them as "urgent and necessary".

"Much of the UK's controlled airspace... was designed in the 1960 and 1970s for a different era of aircraft and when traffic was less than half of what it is today," it says.

The proposals, adds the group, can increase capacity in the air, while reducing the number of people who experience aircraft noise and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

According to Sky's The Limit, the number of flights operating in UK airspace is estimated to rise to 3.1 million a year by 2030 from two million in 2015. But it says airline passengers could suffer delays of up to 20 minutes on every flight by 2030.

The chief executive of Nats likened the UK's current system of flight paths to "a network of B roads".

Image copyright PA
Image caption Sky's The Limit is calling for more use of satellite navigation

Martin Rolfe said that if it did not change, the UK could end up with a scenario where every flight is delayed.

He said: "Either delays will soar from effectively no delay - or very little delay from an air traffic perspective right now - up to millions of minutes a year, which probably means every flight being delayed by 10, 15, 20 minutes," he said.

"Or we end up in a position of any additional capacity that we build in the country - no matter where it is - not being usable and not being of any benefit because we don't have the infrastructure in the airspace to support it."

Nats said modernisation of the UK's airspace would mean aircraft would spend less time at low levels where they create more noise and were less fuel efficient. That would also reduce the need for conventional orbital holding - known as stacking - which would keep planes higher for longer.

But Mr Rolfe admitted changing flights paths was "a contentious topic" as it meant some communities would have more planes flying above them.

He added: "Modernising how our skies are structured is vital, but we are already behind schedule and it is critical that the industry and government now work together to deliver change."

A British Airways spokeswoman said the UK's airspace was "outdated", adding that improvements would provide "operational and environmental" advantages.

Virgin Atlantic chief executive Craig Kreeger said the airline is minimising its environmental impact with new aircraft but it requires a "modern airspace infrastructure to maximise the benefits".

The Department for Transport highlighted its announcement of a consultation on UK airspace policy.

A spokesman added that Transport Secretary Chris Grayling had acknowledged that a "wider programme of airspace modernisation" is needed and had already indicated the consultation would examine a "range of national proposals covering noise and airspace".

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