UK skies nearing capacity warn air traffic chiefs

As the school term ends and families jet off on their summer holidays, UK air traffic controllers are braced for what is expected to be their busiest day on record.

Air Traffic Control

NATS – which manages the UK’s air traffic control systems – expects to handle a record-breaking 8,800 flights today (Friday 21st July) and more than 770,000 overall during the course of the summer, beating last year’s figure by 40,000 and the previous high set in 2007.

Whilst NATS says it is confident that it will be able to handle the sudden increase in traffic over coming weeks, it has also warned that the UK is getting close to manageable limits.

“In the last few weeks we have already safely managed record-breaking daily traffic levels, but the ageing design of UK airspace means we will soon reach the limits of what can be managed without delays rising significantly,” said Jamie Hutchison, director at NATS’ Swanwick air traffic control centre.

London City Airport Control Tower
New digital control towers could help improve efficiency

NATS is currently spending in excess of £600m on new technology to help boost capacity – including an advanced new digital control system at London City Airport – but argues that investment must be accompanied by a redesign of the UK’s network of flight paths and air routes, changes that will require government support.

“The UK’s airspace was designed decades ago,” added Hutchison, “and doesn’t allow us to take advantage of the technology on board modern aircraft that would raise capacity, and also reduce emissions and noise for communities on the ground.”

A UK-wide forecast from the Department for Transport shows that if the airspace remains unchanged, by 2030 there will be 3,100 days’ worth of flight delays – 50 times the amount seen in 2015, along with 8,000 flight cancellations a year.

As well as inconveniencing passengers, this would also damage the wider economy.

Earlier this year, the government consulted on plans to update airspace change policy and is now reviewing the feedback.

Juliet Kennedy, NATS operations director, said: “What is needed is a clear and stable UK policy that recognises how important our airspace is as a critical part of our national infrastructure. It is essential that we are able to balance the needs of airspace users with the environment and, of course, with the communities who experience aircraft noise. Only then can we start the work that is so urgently needed.”