Opinion: Why modernisation of UK's airspace is vital

Opinion: Why modernisation of UK's airspace is vital

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of the British Air Transport Association (BATA)

The UK aviation industry is a remarkable success story. In 2015 a record number of passengers, more than 251 million, travelled by air in and out of the UK.

BATA airlines – which operate from more than 40 airports across the country – carried 144 million of these passengers, as well as 1 million tonnes of cargo. Taken as a whole, the industry is worth almost £50 billion to our national income.

Passenger numbers are set to continue to rise and our sector is in a strong position to meet this ever growing demand for air travel.

Airlines are expanding their route networks and spending billions on new, quieter planes that reduce fuel burn and minimise carbon emissions.

However, there are several well-known issues that are preventing the industry from reaching its full potential. The record levels of Air Passenger Duty, the highest aviation tax levied on passengers in the EU, is a recognised barrier to growth.

Constraints on infrastructure, such as the lack of additional airport capacity or inadequate surface access to airports, also present obstacles to future growth.

As well as these more obvious constraints on our infrastructure, there are lesser known but equally important limitations on capacity.

The invisible infrastructure – the airspace through which our members operate every day – has been neglected and requires modernisation.  

The UK’s airspace was created over 50 years ago when there were just half a million planes in the sky. It was never designed for the record number of aircraft, around 2.4 million in 2015, which now travel through it.

To better visualise this vast change, imagine Britain’s motorways, A-roads and vital junctions from the 1950’s being forced to handle contemporary traffic flows. The delays that would occur would be simply unsustainable.

This pressure is only set to increase, with passenger numbers expected to jump to 350 million and air traffic predicted to rise to 3.1 million aircraft by 2030.

To ensure capacity can keep pace with demand, airspace modernisation is urgently required.

Without modernisation, it is likely that delays would climb to 50 times what they are today, with almost 25% of all flights delayed by more than 30 minutes by 2030 – an intolerable situation for passengers and consumers.

However, airspace modernisation wouldn’t just increase capacity and help prevent such sustained delays.

It would also be a tremendous opportunity for the industry to fully capitalise on the new technology available in the quieter and more efficient aircraft that airlines are investing in. This would ultimately help to reduce noise and carbon emissions.

For instance, airspace modernisation would allow aircraft to fully utilise modern satellite navigation, allowing them to fly direct, efficient routes, as opposed to via ground based beacons, as currently occurs.

Better operating procedures, such as continuous descent and climb operations could also be better utilised.

Such procedures, as the name suggests, enable aircraft to climb and descend continuously, thereby reducing the time spent at low altitudes, which requires more fuel burn.

Overall, these changes would provide greater efficiency, lower fuel burn (and thus CO2 emissions) as well as reduce aircraft noise. Put simply, aircraft would be able to fly quieter and more efficient routes.

Airspace modernisation is a critical, but often overlooked part of our national infrastructure.

The national debate over capacity naturally focuses on our physical infrastructure, the runways, terminals and surface access projects required if aviation is to thrive.

However, focusing just on these aspects of our infrastructure ignores the vast and complex network of routes that every passenger and aircraft in the sky depend upon to complete their journey.

If we are to ensure that the UK aviation industry is able to continue to grow, bringing with it all the attendant benefits to the UK economy, this imbalance must be addressed. 


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