London Airspace – what now?

Written by: Nick McFarlane
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The UK is a massive aviation centre. London's six airports annually process more passengers than any city anywhere (~172m). It's well known that London's airports are severely constrained by their limited runway, aircraft parking and, airspace capacity, and yet while capacity constraints are real, the aviation industry has a track record of consistently identifying and delivering mechanisms to deliver profitable growth.

By 2028 the Department for Transport forecasts 40m extra passengers, the equivalent to a new Luton/Stansted airport combined. This growth is at all the London airports, but obviously driven by Heathrow's new 3rd runway, expected at the end of 2026 at the earliest. However, look a little closer and we can see that passenger per flight figures are also increasing, which means that we may not necessarily see the number of movements increasing at the same rate.

Planning for airspace change

There is a plan to accommodate growth in London's airspace. It's called FASI-South and is in two parts: higher level airspace change, and lower level airspace change around airports. Higher level change has started with a "statement of need" submitted by UK air navigation service provider NATS to the UK CAA and is aiming for implementation from 2024. So far so good!

The potential for difficulty arises when we look at the structure of the airspace and its users – six international London airports, with 60 departure routes and 56 arrival routes between them, many of which overlap and interact with each other. Add to that nine more airports in the same vicinity (such as Farnborough and Biggin Hill), each with their own customers, owners, priorities, investment cycles … and the potential for problems becomes clear.

This situation is further complicated by the fact that not everyone supports airspace change. Legal challenges have impacted proposed changes to vectoring procedures, departure routes and the planned 3rd runway at Heathrow for example. Even when unsuccessful, they slow the process down, and can cause the rules to change, meaning that change advocates are running to catch up with new requirements and processes that didn't exist when they started the process some years earlier.

To illustrate the problems that can occur, Gatwick airport started the process of updating its departure routes to meet modern "PBN" standards in November 2011. It received CAA approval for the route in August 2013 but there then followed a Post Implementation Review that took 2 years. Then, in 2017 a legal challenge was launched regarding one of the routes and the challenge was conceded by the CAA because of a procedural shortcoming from some years before the route updating began. Gatwick now need to start a new airspace change process to complete the route update process.

Another risk for new airspace changes is that there is a new process to be followed, described in CAP1616. This new process has not been tested at scale and itself requires new procedures, such as using "WebTAG" for cost-benefit analysis. Clearly the use of a new process which is not yet familiar to the applicants could increase the risks of errors.

Industry insiders hark back to the success of the London 2012 Olympics, when the airspace was treated as "one airport, with 36 runways", something that required cooperation not competition and a network approach – it was also helped by a fixed milestone, the Olympics themselves.

What now?

We need to address this issue with much greater focus and urgency, it's closer than it seems. We need a plan that includes contingency options. And we need to de-risk legal and other challenges. This will need leadership and investment at a time when Brexit is occupying headspace and resources – but the clock is ticking.

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