The need for airspace modernisation

Designed over 50 years ago, for an industry vastly different in scale to the one we have today, it was never envisaged that our airspace would eventually handle more than two million aircraft and carry 250 million passengers, as it did in 2015.

And air traffic is set to continue to grow, reaching 3.1 million aircraft carrying 350 million passengers by 2030. The boosts to trade and tourism from this growth are substantial, but to secure it we need to ensure that we can manage that demand without delaying passengers or cancelling flights. We need to modernise our invisible infrastructure without further delay.

That means moving from traditional ground-based beacons to modern satellite navigation, the capability for which already exists on many modern aircraft. The UK is at the forefront of aerospace technological development, and since 2005 UK airlines alone have introduced over 470 new aircraft into service, representing an investment of over $49 billion. We now need to modernise our airspace to match. It will improve safety and increase efficiency and capacity whilst minimising the impact on the global environment and benefitting communities under flightpaths.

Through better operating procedures – that can be utilised with a modern airspace structure – there is a potential carbon saving to UK aviation by 2050 of between 9% and 14% and alongside the introduction of quieter aircraft ‘the potential to reduce UK aviation noise output by 2050 compared to 2010’ according to Sustainable Aviation. Aircraft can fly more directly and routes can be designed to avoid noise sensitive areas or provide a more equitable spread of noise as aircraft are not constrained by ground-based aids.

It will also mean greater use of Continuous Descent and Climb operations which reduce noise and CO2 emissions. And it will reduce the need for conventional orbital holding; instead aircraft can be readied for landing higher and thereby reduce noise and CO2 emissions. In essence, aircraft would be able to fly quieter and more efficient routes.

It will also benefit the UK economy. Airspace modernisation across Europe will deliver over £29bn to UK GDP and 116,000 jobs by 2035 (IATA, 2016), as well as improving productivity. Without it, delays faced by passengers are likely to soar to 4 million minutes by 2030, up from 90,000 minutes in 2015 (NATS, 2015).

There will also be benefits to business and leisure fliers. Simpler airspace structures and boundaries will improve safety; and implementing continuous climb and descent operations for commercial air traffic has the potential to release some lower levels of controlled airspace.

Our commitment

The UK aviation industry is committed to delivering a sustainable future for our industry. During the last 10 years through the Sustainable Aviation coalition, UK airlines have delivered a reduction of over 20 million tonnes of CO2. Over the same period, we have reduced noise contour areas – the measurement used by Government to assess community annoyance – by 14% around major UK airports.

We are focused on finding collaborative ways of improving our environmental performance, recognising that the views of local communities must be an integral and fundamental part of the process to ensure sustainable growth of our industry.

Our ask of Government

Airspace modernisation is a pillar of the CAA’s Future Airspace Strategy and of the UK’s infrastructure, it can support the economy and meet the UK’s environmental objectives. We are asking the Government to:

  • Prioritise and support industry efforts to deliver airspace modernisation as set out in the existing Future Airspace Strategy.
  • Deliver a stable, long term noise and airspace policy which recognises the need to modernise airspace, provides clear guidance on the balance of priorities in airspace design and enables modernisation in the forthcoming Aviation Policy Framework.
  • Include airspace, as a critical part of the UK’s national infrastructure which requires long term strategic decision making, in the remit of the National Infrastructure Commission.

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