When we first introduced Time Based Separation for Heathrow arrivals back in 2015, we knew it was going to make a major difference to the airport’s resilience during strong headwinds, but the results in practice have surpassed our original expectations.

On average TBS has saved 115,000 minutes of airborne holding per annum, allowed us to land an average of 0.8 additional movements in all wind conditions and an additional 2.6 per hour on strong wind days. This has cut Air Traffic Flow Management delays caused by headwinds by 62%, saving the airport and airlines about 100,000 minutes of delay each year.

Importantly this has all been achieved alongside a reduction in reported wake vortex encounters and go-arounds. Overall the daily operation has become more consistent and the benefits all add up to a better, more resilient service for airlines and passengers.

For those that don’t know, TBS allows us to dynamically manage the separation between arriving aircraft based on the prevailing wind conditions. During strong headwinds, aircraft fly more slowly over the ground which has traditionally resulted in extra time between arrivals and consequently delays to arriving flights. However, TBS has allowed us to maintain the landing rate in headwinds by safely reducing the distance between arrivals.

Introducing TBS for Heathrow was the first of its kind, it built on work through SESAR and was the result of close working between NATS Leidos, Heathrow Airport, the regulator and the airlines. Since then NATS and Leidos have been working to evolve the concept into a suite of tools we call Intelligent Approach.

It’s those tools and their application for different types of airport around the world that I’ll be discussing at 10am BST on Thursday during our live stream event together with Russell Akehurst from Leidos.

Intelligent Approach can also  cater for converging or dependent runway operations and mixed mode arrival and departure runways. This is without any change to ground infrastructure, runways or airport facilities. Intelligent Approach allows air traffic controllers to safely optimise arrival spacing in all conditions and for all runway configurations, benefiting airport capacity, safety and resilience.

Work is also ongoing as part of SESAR 2020 looking at how wake vortex separations can be further optimised. This involves a move to pairwise separation on approach doing away with current wake categories and providing individual tailored approach separations between aircraft pairs, which will add significant additional runway capacity.

What is perhaps most encouraging about Intelligent Approach and all of the developments being made in separation distances between aircraft is that they do not require investment in ground infrastructure.

In busy cities when space is at a premium and airports are already constrained, tools such as Intelligent Approach provide a valuable solution to many of the problems being faced and can be implemented quickly – within 18 months – and delivering additional resilience and capacity from the first day of operation. As demand for air travel grows, innovative concepts such as IA become ever more essential and the success seen at Heathrow over the past two years is proof of what is possible.

The bottom line is that the suite of controller tools within Intelligent Approach can help any airport whose capacity is constrained in peak times.


Join NATS and Leidos and put your questions to Andy and Russell during our Intelligent Approach Live Stream Event on Thursday 21 September at 10am BST. Register now.

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