Despite falling oil prices, initiatives to reduce carbon emissions, fuel consumption and flight times remain a priority for our airline customers. It’s also one of our overarching corporate objectives, with the aspiration of enabling a 10% cut in aviation CO2 emissions by 2020.
We’re currently just over half way towards that goal, but it was always envisaged that much of the savings would come from making widespread improvements to our airspace. While we continue to search for and deliver small incremental improvements to airspace we know that these will not be enough to reach our target. Large airspace change programmes are planned but these are complex to deliver and will realise benefits in efficiency beyond 2020.
This has not deterred us from our target but has encouraged us to look at other ways we can progress towards it. This involves going beyond the basic ATC service offering to work with customers to improve the sustainability of the industry. We have recently formed a unique partnership with British Airways to develop a tool which could help to achieve this.
I’ve been at NATS for almost two years now, but before then I was a PhD student at the University of Leeds where I worked on how airlines could improve what’s known as its ‘Cost Index’ calculation.
For those that don’t know, a Cost Index helps an airline balance the costs of time with the cost of fuel to determine the optimal speed for a given route. Slower speeds help save fuel, but increase any time dependent costs, while of course the opposite is true for faster flights.
The success of the tool is entirely dependent upon the quality and accuracy of the data that’s inputted into it and on the whole, airlines can find the complex Cost Index calculation a real challenge, especially when trying to take account of extra costs owing to delay and cumulative maintenance and crew costs.
I believed that by incorporating the unique data that NATS holds on network impacts and delay, it would be possible to radically improve the quality of the Cost Index calculation, allowing an airline to then optimise it on a flight-by-flight basis leading to an aircraft speed that minimises cost, fuel burn and emissions.
When I joined NATS, I put my idea for a Cost Index optimisation tool forward for our ‘Dragons’ Den’ programme that looks to support interesting and innovative projects and I was lucky enough to see it selected as one of the winning initiatives.
Since then I’ve been able to work alongside British Airways on putting my theory into practice and it’s been a fantastic experience. BA has given us access to a whole host of valuable data about its operation and together we’ve been working on ways of optimising the Cost Index based on different individual aircraft and route combinations. The aim being to quantify the benefits and understand how this will impact the current flight planning process and without their input it would be extremely difficult to further develop the tool
I think it’s pretty rare, if not unique, for an ANSP and airline to work together in this way and while there is still a lot of work to do, the initial findings are promising, showing that fuel savings can be made at a lower cost to the airline.
Hopefully we’ll be able to prove that’s the case over the next few months.
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