Over the course of the last year, NATS has been taking part in the creation of a TV series with the BBC called Skies Above Britain, with the first episode airing on 17 August at 9pm on BBC2.
The series will be a unique insight into not just what NATS does every day of the year, but also many of the other fascinating, exciting and occasionally bizarre aspects that make up the aviation community in the UK.
Over the course of the series, you’ll see people at NATS all working toward a common goal – keeping everyone who flies safe. One of the things that I hope really comes across is the sense of scale and complexity that those operational teams have to deal with, particularly in the skies over and around London.
Later this year, we hope the Government will make a decision about the future location of a new runway somewhere in the south east of England. There is no doubt that that the additional capacity, wherever it might be, is much needed. All of London’s airports are getting busier and busier. This is good news for the aviation industry but it does put pressure on both airport operations and on us as the custodians of UK airspace.
Unlike most of the nation’s physical transport infrastructure – the roads, railways, or runways – the airspace infrastructure is invisible. Nonetheless, it is most certainly there and underpins the UK’s aviation industry and the wider UK economy.
UK airspace was designed more than 50 years ago when no one dreamed that 2.3 million flights and 250 million people would pass through it every year. And while we have evolved the airspace over the years to help safely manage traffic growth, the current airspace structure hasn’t fundamentally changed and simply won’t manage the demand we’re going to see in 10 or 15 years’ time without significant change today.
Our current airspace infrastructure is also preventing us from delivering many of the benefits we know matter to our airline and airport customers and to local communities; improved flight profiles that save fuel and CO2 emissions, and reduced noise over the ground.
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. Change will mean many people will be overflown less with the new technologies and procedures that airspace modernisation will 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 continuing to ensure safety. You can already see the evidence of this in the new airspace structures that were introduced for London City and Stansted airports in February.
Doing nothing is not an option and regardless of the decision on any new runway, the airspace question must be addressed. Airports can only ever be as efficient as the airspace that supports them. We could build 10 new runways but if the airspace infrastructure that serves them isn’t modernised, the benefits would be limited.
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 and costing the wider economy – including all of us – much more. For a nation that depends on aviation to connect us with the world we can’t afford to let that happen.
So as you enjoy Skies Above Britain remember that without the right investment, the sky could quite literally be the limit to future growth.
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