Building a 21st Century airspace route network

How we can modernise UK airspace through the future airspace strategy.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Sir Patrick McLoughlin MP

Thank you for that introduction.

It’s a pleasure to be here.

And I’d like to thank the Aviation Club for inviting me to speak today (30 April 2014).

The last Transport Secretary to have this honour was Philip Hammond in the summer of 2011.

Britain was still firmly in recession.

And we’d only just started to make inroads on the record public deficit.

I’m pleased to say, things have changed a bit since then.

By sticking to the Chancellor’s fiscal programme, Britain’s economy is today recovering faster than Germany, Japan or the US.

And 3 times faster than the independent Office of Budget Responsibility predicted at last year’s budget.

Unemployment claims have fallen by almost a quarter.

And we’re paying off our debts.

In fact over the coming year, we expect to reach a key milestone.

By cutting the deficit to half the level we inherited.

But these are still early days.

We haven’t yet secured the long-term and balanced recovery that is this government’s biggest priority.

So we’re continuing to do everything in our power to create jobs, boost growth, and make Britain more competitive.

And there are few better engines for growth than aviation.

An industry that contributes £11 billion to our economy.

Carries 2.3 million tonnes of freight a year.

And employs around 220,000 people in the UK.

There’s no question that if we want to build a strong, lasting recovery, then aviation must continue to flourish.

A vibrant aviation industry is crucial to our prosperity.

And while UK airports are now at their busiest since 2008.

We also know that our competitors will overtake us if we fail to plan for our future capacity needs.

Maintaining our hub status is absolutely pivotal.

That’s why we’ve set up the independent Airports Commission.

The commission’s interim report – delivered at the end of last year – is a significant step towards our ultimate goal.

A long-term, sustainable aviation programme that will meet the UK’s future capacity and connectivity needs.

And we’ll be responding to the commission’s interim package of measures in June.

But the challenge for the future goes beyond airport capacity.

Led by the CAA, and the Senior Delivery Group, this is an industry that recognises the need for change and investment.

For example, if we want to remain a world aviation leader.

We need to modernise some of the ageing systems and technologies that make up our aviation infrastructure.

In particular, our airspace route network.

And this is an area where we’re making real progress.

Although Britain is a small country, we are one of the best connected nations in the world.

That means our airspace is some of the busiest and most complex in the world.

The airspace design system we use for air traffic has proved to be robust and enduring.

And we use it well.

But quite simply, it’s out of date.

Much of the structure was established before 1970.

Although its origins go back to the 1950s.

When the vast majority of flights were propeller-powered.

And the jet era was just beginning.

So while the aircraft from that period have long since been scrapped or consigned to museums.

The airspace system lives on.

Now of course some parts of the air traffic infrastructure have been updated.

NATS, for example, are justifiably proud of their recent achievements – as I discovered when I visited the state of the art control centre at Swanwick.

In March, for example, NATS recorded its second lowest ever monthly figure for delays.

Although it handled 0.6% more traffic, delays attributable to NATS totalled just 329 minutes.

But the shortcomings in older parts of the system are increasingly evident.

Hardly surprising when the number of passengers travelling through UK airports has increased a hundredfold since 1950.

We also have increasing competition for space in our skies from military, police and emergency aircraft.

And from general aviation and business flights.

Frankly, the teams that manage and operate the airspace system do a phenomenal job in the circumstances.

But I’m sure they would agree that we can’t continue relying on the current airspace system indefinitely.

The reality is that we have a mid-20th century airspace network which – while safe – is neither resilient nor efficient enough to meet our 21st century needs.

It means that airspace users are unable to benefit from expensive onboard technologies like performance-based navigation.

And the lack of flexibility means that even days of moderately bad weather can lead to delays.

To achieve greater efficiency and capacity in our airspace network, we must embrace the latest technology.

Not just around London, but right across the country.

So the CAA has been working with the industry to develop its future airspace strategy.

This is a flagship programme that provides the blueprint for a modern airspace system.

Not only overcoming the particular challenges we face in Britain.

But also setting the standard for other countries to follow.

Of course the UK does not sit in isolation.

The management of our airspace is influenced by traffic from the North Atlantic and continental Europe.

As a key part of the European air traffic management network.

We act with Ireland as the interface between the EU and North Atlantic.

The European Commission wants to improve the organisation of airspace through the single European sky (SES) initiative.

There are several ways in which we are working to implement SES regulations.

We have established a functional airspace block with Ireland to optimise service provision in our airspace.

This has already realised £57 million of savings through more direct routings of aircraft.

And it’s expected to save almost £250 million by the end of 2019.

We’re developing a performance plan to improve efficiency and capacity, while maintaining safety.

And we’re taking part in the SESAR project to improve air navigation.

Until recently, much of this work was conceptual.

Now the focus is shifting to implementing a more modern and efficient airspace control network.

And we believe the future airspace strategy presents a model of how this can be achieved.

So what does it mean in practice?

Well, all aircraft flying to and from London will use performance-based navigation techniques.

This will substantially increase their navigational accuracy.

And will help us manage our airspace far more effectively.

We’ll be able to separate aircraft by time rather than distance.

And we’ll create a common transitional altitude in the UK.

By 2020, it’s predicted that these changes will save around £200 million in fuel, reduce CO₂ emissions and minimise delays.

Airborne holding over London should also be significantly reduced.

Cutting pollution, fuel usage, and flight times.

The new strategy will also allow local communities to have some say in how airspace is managed.

Longer term, it will be essential for the delivery of any new runways or improvements to airport capacity without any negative impact on other airports.

Indeed, the Airports Commission in its interim report stressed the importance of the future airspace strategy, particularly in the south east.

The focus now is for the Civil Aviation Authority – through its Senior Delivery Group – to implement the strategy as soon as possible.

With representatives from the airports, airlines, NATS, government, and the CAA, the Senior Delivery Group has a vital role to play in overseeing the transformation of our airspace.

Today I’ve just focused on one key area of our modernisation programme for aviation.

But look around the country, and there’s a huge amount of other work going on.

Many airports - including Stansted, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh – are improving terminals and passenger facilities.

We’re investing in better rail links to airports.

From Crossrail and HS2, to the Northern Hub in Manchester, and a new £500 million link between the West Country and Heathrow.

And the Airports Commission is building a case that will unlock the debate on runway capacity.

So let me finish with this message.

Although UK aviation has suffered from stagnation, underinvestment and lack of consensus.

Today, the industry’s prospects are brighter than they have been for years.

As our economy recovers, we will be ready to meet rising demand for air travel, with a sustainable plan for growth.

And by working in partnership with the industry, we will ensure that Britain remains a global aviation leader.

Thank you.

Published 15 May 2014