Free Route

Last December, we implemented the biggest airspace change ever undertaken in the UK by introducing Free Route Airspace (FRA) over the North Sea, Scotland, North Atlantic, Northern Ireland and a small portion of northern England. Earlier this month, I was invited to present at the Asia Pacific (APAC) Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation CEO Committee Meeting to talk about our recent deployment and the benefits it could deliver across the region.

Not only was it a great honour to be invited to present at such an important event, but it was also fantastic to receive such positive engagement from my APAC colleagues, who were keen to hear more about our FRA and how we achieved it.

In simple terms, FRA removes traditional air routes, the invisible motorways in the sky along which aircraft fly, in the upper airspace above 25,000 ft. This allows aircraft to fly the route they want, between a defined entry and exit point, which can include flight paths across international borders. 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, often environmentally inefficient routes.

The concept is being deployed across Europe as part of the Single European Sky initiative to improve the way Europe’s airspace is managed. We are working closely with our Northern European ANSP partners through the Borealis Alliance, a collaboration of nine countries, to enable seamless airspace in the future and maximise the benefits FRA can unlock. Ultimately, the advantages exponentially increase as FRA’s area of operation expands and therefore collaborating cross-border is crucial.

There really is great potential for implementing FRA across Asia Pacific, which like Europe, covers a very large geographic area and has a significant number of air navigation service providers (ANSPs) within it, which can lead to sub optimal solutions for airspace users without close co-operation between them. With high traffic growth and increasing demand for air travel, coupled with an appetite to improve the efficiency and operational performance of the region’s airspace, FRA operations can help.

The benefits are huge, even for the small section of UK airspace which we have already introduced it in. Before implementation over Scotland, it was predicted that FRA could create a reduction of up to 12,000 tonnes of Co2 per year in UK airspace – that’s the equivalent to the carbon footprint of 3,500 homes. It is also forecast to enable 500,000 nautical miles of flying saved per year for aircraft using the airspace – the equivalent of 23 trips around the world! Our next deployment of FRA is on track to be implemented in just under a year over the south west of the UK, with two further deployments planned to fully cover the UK over the coming years.

When implemented across Europe, Eurocontrol have estimated that it could save 1 billion nautical miles of flying, 6 million tonnes of fuel burn saved, 20 million fewer CO2 tonnes and save €5 billion in fuel cost savings compared to maintaining conventional airspace operations – certainly a prize worth seeking.

With the International Air Transport Association (IATA) expecting overall traveller numbers to exceed pre pandemic levels by 2024, the environmental and operational benefits that FRA can provide have never been more alluring.


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