Last week, on 2nd December 2021, NATS implemented the biggest airspace change ever undertaken in the UK and introduced Free Route Airspace for the first time into UK skies. It’s an exciting milestone in a project which has been underway for over five years and will enable huge fuel, flight time and CO2 savings. But what is Free Route Airspace (FRA) and what does it mean for airlines?

What is Free Route Airspace?

Free Route Airspace (FRA) means that airspace structures are removed above 25,000 ft, allowing aircraft to fly the route they want to between a defined entry and exit point. It allows airlines the freedom to plan and fly their optimal route considering things such as weather and wind speed. This level of flexibility hasn’t previously been possible, with our airspace structure requiring aircraft to follow predefined routes.

This traditional way of flying was determined several decades ago when technology was significantly less advanced than it is today. At the time, it made sense to think of routes like fixed motorways in the sky where to get from A to B you would travel along one corridor until you got to a junction that let you change direction towards your destination. It meant that aircraft often fly further than necessary at these higher altitudes.  Now, with new technology and navigational techniques, we can make this high level flying much more efficient.

What were the changes?

The changes implemented last week removed the long-established routes over Scottish airspace (the airspace over the North Sea, Scotland, North Atlantic, Northern Ireland and a small portion of northern England). This area of airspace accounts for roughly 1/3 of UK airspace, handling up to 2,000 flights a day and around 80% of all transatlantic flights, so the changes will significantly help to reduce cost, fuel burn, flight time and CO2 emissions.

This is one of many changes that NATS will undertake over the next few years to help the aviation industry achieve its target of reducing its CO2 emissions by at least 15% by 2030 (15% of 2019 levels) and reaching net-zero by 2050. With the introduction of sustainable fuels and new engine and aircraft technology still some years away, managing our airspace in a way which allows more efficient flying is already playing a major role in helping the aviation industry reduce its environmental impact. The introduction of FRA in Scottish airspace alone will save CO2 equivalent to the power used by 3,500 family homes every year.

The introduction of FRA in Scottish airspace marks the first of four planned deployments to introduce FRA across the UK over the next five years and it should be fully implemented across Europe by the end of 2027.


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