UK’s airspace is ‘just a network of B-roads in the sky’, admits boss

Inside the National Air Traffic Services air traffic control tower at London Stansted Airport

Inside the National Air Traffic Services air traffic control tower at London Stansted Airport

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AIRLINE PASSENGERS could suffer delays of up to 20 minutes on every flight unless airspace is modernised, the head of the UK’s National Air Traffic Control Service has warned.

Chief executive Martin Rolfe described existing flight paths - designed in the 1960s and 1970s - as “a network of B roads” which need urgent restructuring to make them more efficient.

Inside the National Air Traffic Services air traffic control tower at London Stansted Airport

Inside the National Air Traffic Services air traffic control tower at London Stansted Airport

The number of flights operating in UK airspace is expected to rise from two million last year to 3.1 million by 2030.

Mr Rolfe, whose organisation is responsible for overseeing British airspace, warned that under the current system either all flights will be delayed or expanded capacity, such as from a third runway at Heathrow Airport, will not be utilised.

He told said: “Either delays will soar from effectively no delay or very little delay from an air traffic perspective right now up to millions of minutes a year, which probably means every flight being delayed by 10, 15, 20 minutes.

“Or we end up in a position of any additional capacity that we build in the country - no matter where it is - not being usable and not being of any benefit because we don’t have the infrastructure in the airspace to support it.”

Research by air traffic control found that delays could rise from around 90,000 minutes a year today to four million by 2030 if nothing is done.

A coalition of airlines, airports and air traffic control have formed a group named The Sky’s The Limit, which is calling on the Government and other politicians to support airspace modernisation.

The Department for Transport will be launching a consultation next year into the process of managing the UK’s airspace.

Mr Rolfe said: “Modernising how our skies are structured is vital, but we are already behind schedule and it is critical that the industry and government now work together to deliver change.”

He admitted that changing flights paths is “a contentious topic” as it means some communities have more planes flying above them.

He said modernisation of airspace would allow greater use of smooth, continuous descents and climbs, meaning aircraft would spend less time at low levels where they create more noise and are less efficient.

This would also reduce the need for conventional orbital holding - known as stacking - which would keep planes higher for longer.

Two years ago, the air traffic control service faced widespread criticism after a technical fault in its systems, involving computer code written a quarter of a century ago, caused disruption at airports across the country. The organisation had earlier been warned about the quality of its plans to deal with technical failures.

Virgin Atlantic chief executive Craig Kreeger said: “On-time performance is vitally important for Virgin Atlantic and our customers.

“Our investment in the very latest generation aircraft will allow us to fly ever more efficiently so that we can keep our fares low and minimise our environmental impact.

“But we need modern airspace infrastructure to maximise the benefits of these highly efficient aircraft.

“We’re calling on the Government to recognise the overwhelming positive case for change.”

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