This year looks likely to be the busiest on record in the south east of England, with traffic expected to grow at all but one of London’s major airports.
Luton is expecting a 10% rise in traffic, while Stansted will likely see 184,000 movements in 2016, a rise of 8% on last year. London City will grow by 2% to 86,700 annual movements and Gatwick is hoping for its busiest ever summer, with a schedule that includes around 80 days of more than 900 daily movements – quite a challenge when you consider it only first broke the 900 barrier in 2013.
Even at Heathrow, which is already capacity constrained we are expecting to see an increase in the numbers of large aircraft delivering increased passenger numbers via a full summer schedule.
Overall we expect to handle around 1.14 million flights in and out of the five major London airports in 2016 to an ever increasing list of destinations. That’s a rise of 40,000 on last year and a trend that’s expected to continue for years to come, showing how vibrant our aviation industry is, as well as the general health of the economy.
So what does this mean for us as air traffic controllers? Finding ways to safely squeeze additional movements out of limited runway and airspace capacity is part of our job in supporting our airline and airport customers in delivering the schedules they want to run. We work closely with the airports in their planning process, particularly in the run up to busy periods, in order to understand the broader picture across the UK so we can identify the resources we might need to deal with the demand. Over the past few years technology enhancements, such as Airport Collaborative Decision Making, Airport and Airspace Capacity Management, iFACTS and Time Based Separation have helped us to improve efficiency and resilience.
However, that can only go on for so long. More fundamental change is now needed if we are to continue supporting the growth of the industry, regardless of a decision on any new runway.
The airspace structure in the UK was initially designed 50 years ago when the likes of the VC-10, the Vanguard and the Hawker Siddeley Trident ruled the skies. No one dreamed that one day over 2 million flights and 220 million people would pass through UK airspace every year. While the airspace has evolved over the years to help safely manage traffic growth, the current airspace structure simply won’t manage the rising demand we’re going to see in 10 years’ time without significant change today. We may even start to see symptoms of that future pressure on capacity during periods of peak demand this summer.
We wouldn’t accept having to drive on 1960s roads, so why do we accept it in our skies?
Without meaningful and widespread airspace modernisation and greater airport collaboration and coordination, the UK faces the prospect of delays 50 times what they are today, something that will cost airlines over £1bn each year and our wider economy an awful lot more. In reality the breakdown in connectivity would likely mean the erosion of our aviation industry with airlines taking their business elsewhere.
The challenge with airspace change, as with every other big infrastructure project, is that there are always winners and losers and it therefore requires political determination to help deliver. But the stakes are high and as an island nation that relies on aviation, we can’t afford to lose.
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