Congested skies as UK air traffic surges

UK air traffic controllers have handled a record-breaking 9,000 flights in one day, highlighting the need to modernise UK airspace.

Congestion in the skies is as much a problem as it is on the ground, with UK airspace now typically handling 2.5 million flights a year or just over 7,000 a day.

This peaked at a peace-time record of 9,000 at the end of May, when flights to Madrid for the Champions League final added to traffic levels. It marked the end of a hectic month for NATS, the air traffic services provider, which published a series of visuals on Twitter showing the volume of Bank Holiday aircraft movements over London and the rest of the UK.

Last summer, NATS control centres at Swanwick in Hampshire and Prestwick in Ayrshire handled about a quarter of Europe’s peak of 37,000 flights-a-day.

More flight delays

While the NATS figures for delays were lower than elsewhere, 2018 still saw significant delays across Europe due to airspace capacity constraints and staff shortages.

Parts of UK airspace, particularly over the South East of England, are already restricted, which makes the rising number of aircraft movements particularly challenging.

As part of its Aviation 2050 review, the Government forecasts that by 2030 there will be 355 million passengers on 3.25 million flights. Without modernisation, it is thought that one in three flights will be delayed by half an hour or more by 2030.

Satellite-based navigation

NATS is a member of Our Future Skies, which unites organisations from the aviation industry to highlight the need for airspace modernisation and to make flying quicker, quieter and cleaner.

Air traffic controllers currently track planes via ground-based beacons, a system designed in the 1950s. With new technology, such as satellite-based navigation, it is now possible to make the best use of the full capability of modern aircraft.

Modernisation will make it easier for airports to manage how noise impacts local communities, while other potential benefits include an end to the stacking of planes — where aircraft queue in a circular pattern waiting to land. Analysis by NATS suggests airspace modernisation could deliver up to 20% of annual savings in fuel burn and CO2 emissions.