One thing becomes very obvious when you try to explain how airspace works – how very complicated it is, and how very difficult it is to explain without live radar in front of you to demonstrate it.
I went to Westminster last night with the CEO of Heathrow to meet a group of MPs from Surrey and Berkshire, and their case workers to discuss what their constituents are telling them is more flights and more noise over their homes.
We had various maps with us, but when you’re only looking at the Heathrow arrivals tracks when the wind is from the east, or the tracks on one departure route, it’s hard to convey the sheer complexity of the flight paths of 3,500 flights every day in and out of London’s airports.
We reconfirmed that there had been a change within the existing airspace on the easterly departure route known as Compton, not a change to the route but to the procedures used to direct air traffic along it. As traffic increases, it is helping systemise the traffic flow and separate it from arrivals flows, to make it more predictable and therefore safer.
There is currently a great deal of work going on to redesign the route completely which is being discussed through the Heathrow Community Noise Forum, as it has never been easy for aircraft to fly. That will be a matter for public consultation in due course – because that’s what we are required to do by the CAA when a route change is being proposed.
There haven’t been any other changes to routes, although we pointed out that flight patterns within controlled airspace change almost daily in much the same way as patterns of road traffic change daily.
Yesterday’s thunderstorms over the south-east, for instance, will have changed the pattern of flights considerably as aircraft prefer to fly around storms rather than through them. Recent air traffic control strikes in France and Belgium mean aircraft file flight plans to avoid the airspace that’s affected. Military activity in their training areas around the UK and France can also mean re-routes to avoid these areas and altogether there is currently more use of southerly routes as airlines seek to avoid trouble spots in eastern Europe and beyond.
So there is always an ebb and flow in air traffic which will vary according to the current circumstances.
There is also, always, a lot of work going on to try to mitigate the impact of noise for people on the ground. We told the MPs of our ongoing efforts to modernise UK airspace, which will help us get flights higher, quicker and move the holding points higher and further out. Inevitably, suspicion that change will make things worse has made it harder to convince people it’s a good thing, and the Government’s now going to consult on policy to guide future airspace planning in the autumn which means we need to wait for that before we try to move on with design.
Heathrow is exploring a steeper angle of descent, and the possibility of landing further down the runway, to keep aircraft higher for longer. And we are now managing arrivals from much further out which means that holding time is already being reduced which cuts noise as well as CO2.
We told the MPs that we don’t have any say in the amount of traffic in the skies – and London’s airports (except Heathrow which is already full) are all getting busier every year. We are expecting an additional 40,000 flights this year in and out of the five major London airports, on top of the 1.1 million flights already there. Our job is to deal with the traffic we’re presented with, safely and within the airspace we control.
I also made the point that although we could accommodate change within existing airspace, you have to be mindful that any change will affect someone else. And as one of the caseworkers acknowledged, we all have to put our hands up and admit that as we all like to fly, the aircraft have to fly somewhere….
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