As airlines work hard to reduce their fuel burn and CO2 emissions, we at NATS have also been coming up with ways to help, using air traffic control initiatives to play our part.

As you may already know, airlines have to create a flight plan to input into air traffic control systems before a flight departs. What you may not be aware of is that our controllers are able to give airlines far more direct routes, effectively a shortcut, in order to reduce the miles flown and save both fuel and time.

Aircraft at cruise height

The height at which a plane flies also affects the amount of fuel used and our controllers have for many years been directing aircraft to fly at the most optimum height, even though it may differ from that specified in the flight plan.

According to standard procedures, airlines have to calculate how much fuel they’ll need according to their original flight plan – not taking into account tactical shortcuts – and so historically, they were taking on more fuel than needed. And of course it costs fuel to carry fuel.

However, in the last few years this has changed, with some of our suggested shortcuts being incorporated into flight plans and therefore reducing the amount of fuel needed to be uplifted, and the associated environmental impacts.

Locally from Prestwick, we have also taken a collaborative approach with the Scottish airports to enable planes to use Continuous Descent Operations (CDO), burning less fuel and reducing noise on the ground.

From our control centre in Prestwick, we also manage the air traffic half way across the Atlantic Ocean and through a Collaborative Agreement with NAV CANADA we have recently installed a brand new system at Prestwick that provides additional and innovative tools for controllers to use.

These tools mean controllers can offer aircraft crossing the Atlantic the optimum flying altitude for their type of aircraft in order to minimise fuel burn.

It is still early days but we already have evidence that more and more aircraft are being offered and are accepting heights which burn less fuel; combined with another new tool that was recently introduced, our controllers can offer aircraft the chance to fly 8,000ft higher than previously, which again results in aircraft using considerably less fuel than at a lower height.

Controller at Prestwick

As the New Year gets underway, we’ll be introducing a revolutionary way for airlines to plan their routes with a concept called Free Route airspace.

Effectively this means the removal of some of the constraints currently placed on the ‘motorways’ in the sky. This will be launched first in Scottish airspace before being introduced across the rest of the UK and should result in even more environmental savings.

Oceanic Tracks

Later this month we will know if we have achieved our target of a reduction in the average carbon footprint of air traffic management per aircraft in the UK by 4% by the end of 2014. This is ahead of our next target – a reduction in the average carbon footprint of air traffic management per aircraft in the UK by 10% by the end of 2020, which would result in over two million fewer tonnes of CO2 being produced per year.


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This is a wonderful initiative and I can only imagine the positive impacts- Do you have any updates on how this has progressed?

Hi Paul, thanks for leaving a comment and for your interest. We’ll be reporting on the past year’s environmental performance in June and that will include everything we’ve been doing on Continuous Descent Operations. Keep your eyes peeled for an update then. Thanks, Paul


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