Sustainability was a big talking point at the BTA (formerly GTMC) Conference earlier this week.

Airlines such as Easyjet talked about their ongoing project with Wright Electric, while Tom Screen, aviation director at Birmingham airport, touched upon the airport’s bid to become carbon neutral by 2035.

However, Andy Shand, from the National Air Traffic Services (NATS), gave an in-depth presentation on the work his organisation was doing to help reduce CO2 emissions by aircraft, and said he believed the travel industry was waking up to the issue of climate change. 

Shand, who is general manager, customer affairs at NATS, said that because the UK is an island nation, aviation is key when trading with other countries. With Brexit looming, it seems unlikely commercial flights will decrease. Against the backdrop of the government’s plan to achieve net zero UK carbon emissions by 2050, Shand shared NATS’ role in helping to reduce emissions

Setting the scene
In his “Congestion in the skies – what’s next?” talk, Shand said the aviation industry brings £20 billion a year to the UK economy, while tourists bring another £21 billion a year. And at least 220,000 jobs depend on the aviation industry, he claimed.

As a result, NATS – which controls UK domestic and nearby ocean airspaces – said there were many challenges in ensuring growing numbers of flights take off and land safely, and on time.

I think we are waking up as an industry, but there’s a lot more we need to do

Speaking at the Grand Hotel Huis ter Duin in the Netherlands, he said: “One of the challenges is, when we talk about airspace and constraints, everybody looks up and says, well it’s a really big sky, you’ve got loads of space to put aeroplanes in. I can’t see any roads up there.

“Last year NATS handled 2.64 million commercial flights, but the forecast is this will grow to 3 million flights by 2030. We did a lot of work with the government in 2016 and 2017 to raise awareness of the need to change the airspace infrastructure in the UK. It really is a critical national asset to the UK.”

Andy Shand of NATS

Technology upgrades have meant NATS can reduce time-consuming holding patterns for aircraft above airports. The situation had improved since March this year, he said, as a new satellite system – called the Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) – allows NATS to pinpoint aircraft as they approach the UK. 

“Up until March this year, we couldn’t see planes across the North Atlantic. We relied on planes’ automatic reporting, or crew radioed in position report, which they do every 15 or 30 minutes,” he told delegates.

One of the challenges is, when we talk about airspace and constraints, everybody looks up and says, well it’s a really big sky, you’ve got loads of space to put aeroplanes in

“As of March, we implemented ADS-B to see where those aircraft are every four to six seconds. That’s a revelation for air traffic control. It allows us to reduce the separation standard on the North Atlantic to close to what we can do in domestic airspace.  

“Flying into Heathrow, you’re used to going round in hold, and the new system will largely do away with airborne holding. Every minute of holding saved is worth about 15,000 tons of fuel, or 47,000 tons of CO2.”        

Noise pollution
Meanwhile, NATS will have to consult with some 40 million people on proposing new routes. Shand said: “Airspace is starting to reach its capacity, and we’re splitting routes, which means planes are flying at lower levels, so we’re consulting with local authorities.”

NATS is using sophisticated technology to propose quicker and more fuel efficient routes that would lower CO2 emissions. “What does it mean in terms of fuel burnt, or noise, or air traffic control workload?” he asked. “It’s a slow process, because we may have to consult up to 40 million to change airspace. Below 7,000 feet, you can hear planes. What you can’t have is that happening piecemeal with airports going off individually and consulting. We’ve created the Airspace Change Organising Group – separate to NATS

“We’re using that to coordinate the change. Many parts of the change will happen around 2024 into 2025, allowing for [Heathrow] runway three in 2026.”  

Sustainability goals
Shand also revealed NATS is on target to reduce emissions. “We’ve set a commitment to reduce the average CO2 emitted per flight by 10 per cent. So far we’ve achieved 6.7 per cent,” he said. “Since 2006 the amount of distance flown in UK airspace has grown by 39 per cent, but the CO2 emissions have only increased by 20 per cent. We are becoming more ambitious. But the issue is a lot bigger. 

UK Sustainable Aviation, of which we’re part of, and airlines are part of, is analysing various scenarios to see what else we can do to reduce the impact, to support the government’s net zero emissions ambition by 2050. I think we are waking up as an industry, but there’s a lot more we need to do.”

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