Yesterday I spoke on a panel at the UK Aviation Conference hosted by the Airport trade association AOA, the airline trade associations BATA and BAR UK, and the Royal Aeronautical Society.
Unsurprisingly, there was a focus on security given recent events, but also on ATM service quality – and I must thank one of our airline customers for urging the EU to raise European ATM service to the standards they enjoy from NATS.
My focus, equally unsurprisingly, was on airspace. Unlike most of our physical transport infrastructure – our roads, our railways, or our runways – the airspace infrastructure is invisible but it is most certainly there, underpinning the UK’s aviation industry and the UK economy.
Martin Rolfe, NATS CEO ‘The sky is becoming the limit, we need to modernise airspace’ #AviationConf15
— Ian Jopson (@NATSEnvironment) November 23, 2015
But it was designed more than 50 years ago when no one dreamed of over 2 million flights passing through UK airspace every year. And while the airspace has evolved over the years to help safely manage traffic growth, the current airspace structure hasn’t fundamentally changed and won’t manage the demand we’re likely to see in 10 or 15 years’ time without significant change.
Our current airspace infrastructure is also preventing us from delivering many of the benefits we know matter to our customers and local communities; improved flight profiles, which save fuel and CO2 emissions, and reduced noise over the ground.
The challenge with airspace change, as with other big infrastructure projects, is that there are winners and losers and it’s therefore politically challenging to deliver. Many people will be overflown less with the new technologies and procedures that airspace modernisation would enable, but some could be overflown more.
We are already working harder, alongside the airports, with local communities to understand their concerns and priorities. And we need to do what we can to design our airspace infrastructure in a way that strikes a balance between minimising impact on the ground, maximising capacity and helping to reduce fuel burn, all while ensuring safety.
Doing nothing is not an option. Airports are only as good as the airspace that supports them. We could build 10 new runways in the South East but if the airspace infrastructure that serves them isn’t modernised, the benefits would be limited. If nothing changes the sky could quite literally be the limit to growth.
With no improvement, our analysis based on Government traffic forecasts suggest delays are likely to soar to 50 times what they are today, costing airlines over £1bn pa and costing the wider economy much more. For an island nation like the UK, which depends on aviation to connect us with the wider world, we can’t afford to let this happen.
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