The sky has a limit

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.

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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Ken Neel

I disagree regarding adding of runways. Adding Runways and airport configuration are critical stress points. Airport acceptance rates are based on these.Addtionally I would give consideration of standard runway widths to 400′ with addtional highspeed taxiways along both sides of the runway.I believe this would allow for reduced seperation on final in VMC.



Philip Whitehouse

What sort of improvements are needed specifically – both this post and the ‘We can’t wait’ post are light on specific limitations. Is it more precise monitoring equipment (better/more precise communications/radar) or is it better computer systems to analyse the data that already exists? Or is it both? Or is there something else

It’s not as obvious to the average traveller what improvements would make a difference – it’s not like you have to ‘build an air corridor’ itself – the sky exists (though I guess there’s maybe ground based monitoring for each corridor above land?) so it’s less visually easy to comprehend compared to something like Crossrail.



Katie Williams

Funny how the winners are always the airlines via increased profits and the losers the communities on the ground who experience increased noise and pollution and all of the associated health and educational problems.

Thanks for your comments.

The specific improvements I was referring to are particularly around airspace design, primarily in the vicinity of major airports and, in the case of the South East of England, where we have a number of major airports in close geographical proximity. Whilst Philip, you’re absolutely right to flag that we don’t have to physically ‘build’ an airspace corridor, we do have to create a network of routes that enable us to safely manage all the flights that need to take off and depart from the UK in an efficient way – i.e with minimal delays and the best possible environmental performance we can deliver – for the sake of communities, the environment and the airlines.

As for equipment, there are new technologies and concepts that will help us to better serve both the aviation industry and local communities surrounding airports. This includes designing the airspace so that we can offer more continuous climbs and descents around airports, both of which would reduce the overall number of people affected by aircraft noise in and around airports. However, in order to be able to implement some of these new concepts, we need to redesign the airspace and this can alter who is overflown and how much.

As I outlined in the post, overall we’re aiming to reduce the number of people overflown. However some people may be overflown more. What we’re doing now is working more closely, alongside airports, with the local communities potentially affected by such changes to understand their concerns and priorities in order to try and design airspace networks that strike the right balance between meeting future capacity demands and minimising the impact on local communities. What I think we can say though, is that if we want the UK to have a successful, sustainable aviation industry and to remain globally connected, then we cannot afford to do nothing.


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