2018 was the busiest summer on record for air traffic in Europe with peaks of 37,000 flights a day and 2019 is expected to be even busier. Unfortunately last summer also saw some of the worst air traffic delays throughout the continent, caused largely by airspace capacity constraints and staff shortages.

Hotspot example showing high demand in the east sectors of airspace

Last summer NATS handled 25% of European traffic but only contributed 2.6% of the ANSP attributable delay and we’re very proud that year after year our delay figures continue to be far lower than our European counterparts. But we need to work hard to keep that up; especially as the demand for air travel is increasing all the time. So we’ve been planning for this busy summer period for a number of months – preparing for the worst and hoping for the best!

Forecasting how many flights we will have to handle from our centres in Swanwick and Prestwick is one of the first tasks, and with many events coinciding at the end of May, and in early June, it’s important to realise the impact this will have on air traffic.

As well as the May Day bank holiday and school half term, the Cannes Film Festival and Monaco Grand Prix will increase the number of flights in UK airspace and throughout Europe. And with four English teams now qualified for the finals of the Europa League Final in Baku and the Champions League Final in Madrid, we are expecting to see a substantial increase in scheduled flights and private jets as fans are keen to travel and support their teams.

Planner showing events that will increase the number of flights being handled

In fact, with all of this going on, we are anticipating that 24th May could potentially be the busiest day ever for air traffic in UK airspace, beating all other records including the high of 8,854 flights handled by our controllers in May 2018.

So how do we plan for this? And plan for success?

Tactical measure put in place to optimise the airspace in the sector as demand is high

Airspace Capacity Management plays a big part, with the teams at Swanwick and Prestwick ensuring that the airspace is optimised to minimise delay and maximise efficiency, using a collaborative decision-making process. So we talk to our customers – the airlines – so that we can understand their needs. And we talk to the military, so we can make the most of our longstanding commitment to Flexible Use of Airspace (FUA), a co-operative approach where some sections of airspace are shared by civil and military air traffic.

Collaboration is absolutely vital to ensure that we’re getting the most out of our airspace and providing the best service possible to the airlines, so that passengers aren’t delayed.  This can be as simple as a daily ‘UK Network call’, which we recently introduced to review the previous day’s operation with input from the airports and airlines and answer any questions that they may have. We also use these calls to talk about the plan for the next day, highlighting any hotspots (the busiest sectors of airspace) in the Network, re-route scenarios and any other challenges or risks that may negatively impact the airlines’ schedules.

These calls are in addition to the numerous planning meetings and workshops that have taken place with the airlines and airports in order to come up with ways to mitigate against potential delays this summer. This collective approach has resulted in some really helpful outcomes, for example, securing 46 slots across 13 UK airports that can be used in the event of the sudden loss of a runway.

We have also provided customers with a ‘playbook’, scenario planning with disruptive events such as bad weather or rogue drones and outlining the tactical measures we would implement as a result so that they are better prepared for these incidents and can plan accordingly.

All of these measures play into our PERL strategy – Plan, Execute, Review, Learn.  The more we can do to plan, the better the execution; and we recognise that continuous improvement needs ongoing review of actual performance so we can drive future progress and share best practice.

All of this is essential if we are to successfully cope with the high levels of demand we are expecting this summer. Parts of our airspace, particularly over the South East of England, are already capacity constrained, and this is felt even more acutely during the busy summer months. While we are looking to modernise our skies over the next few years to free up capacity, anything we can do in the meantime to optimise our use of the airspace – for the summer especially – is crucial to ensure we keep delays to a minimum.


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