Airspace modernisation

Creating an aviation infrastructure for the future to deliver quicker, quieter and cleaner journeys and more capacity for those using and affected by UK airspace.

What is airspace modernisation?

The network of routes in the airspace above us is vital for moving people and goods around the world safely, securely, quickly and on time. Our skies are occupied with aircraft of many kinds, including commercial passenger flights, air freight, general aviation, military and drones.

Airspace has to be managed so that those using it can do so safely and efficiently. To achieve this management, there are rules on who can use what airspace, and how.

The Department for Transport (DfT) and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) are working together to act as co-sponsors for the modernisation of the UK’s airspace. Modernising airspace means updating its structural design, changing how the systems on which it runs work, and using new technology to improve how air traffic is managed.

The overall objective for airspace modernisation is to deliver quicker, quieter and cleaner journeys and more capacity for the benefit of those who use and are affected by UK airspace.

The aviation industry is also working together to deliver airspace modernisation through a coordinated programme.

Why is airspace modernisation needed?

The aviation industry is a major contributor to the UK economy. It supports hundreds of thousands of jobs and delivers billions of pounds in economic and social benefits.

Like our road and rail infrastructure on the ground, we need to keep our infrastructure in the sky up to date to keep people moving.

The UK’s airspace is some of the most complex in the world, yet has not undergone significant change since the 1950s.

Successfully accommodating the growth in demand for air transport has meant adding significant complexity to the UK’s airspace system. Particularly where volumes of traffic are highest, principally over south-east England.

The CAA’s Airspace modernisation strategy outlines the work that needs to happen to modernise airspace, and why.

Research by DfT suggests that without action, 1 in 3 flights could be delayed by half an hour or more by 2030, costing the UK around £250 million a year.

What are the benefits of airspace modernisation?

Modernising airspace will help to keep the UK moving and deliver increased capacity, while making journeys quicker, quieter and cleaner.

Combined with the development of new technology, airspace modernisation will:

  • help to reduce aviation’s carbon emissions, contributing to ambitions such as the global industry goal to reduce net emissions by 50% by 2050
  • reduce the need for stacking, where aircraft join a circular queue to land at busy airports, helping to reduce carbon emissions and noise impact
  • create opportunities for airports to manage how noise impacts local communities, including the introduction of ‘planned breaks’ for noise respite
  • increase the resilience of flights, so we can all be more confident that both holidays and travelling for work will not be affected by unnecessary delays
  • increase airport capacity, providing more choice and better value for passengers.

New technology may also provide opportunities to reduce the amount of controlled airspace by airports for commercial flights, allowing greater access for general aviation users.

What is happening?

One of the most complex and pressing aspects of airspace modernisation is the need for its redesign, to accommodate the different types of aircraft that have been developed in recent decades. Flightpaths have to be redrawn in a coordinated way.

This programme requires airports across the UK to consult with local communities and other airspace users about changes to their departure and arrival routes. This process has already started in some parts of the country, with statutory consultations due in the future.

Changes to the design of UK airspace are proposed by an airspace change sponsor. Anyone can be an airspace change sponsor – although it is most typically an airport or an air navigation service provider. The CAA’s CAP1616 document (PDF, 2.5MB) sets out a clear process for change sponsors to follow.

NATS, the organisation responsible for running the UK’s higher levels of controlled airspace, will also work closely with a wide range of stakeholders on structural changes to the route network at these higher levels.

Airports and NATS will work closely together to ensure that the proposed changes fit together seamlessly and contribute to an effective airspace infrastructure for the future. The Airspace Change Organising Group, has been set up to support this coordination and to draw a masterplan which will show areas where new designs will be needed.

DfT and CAA will assess this masterplan and track its delivery. The masterplan will not set out the new designs, which must be developed by a change sponsor, such as NATS and airports. Once the new design proposals have been put forward, the CAA will assess these and decide whether to approve or reject them.

Anyone is also able to request that the Secretary of State for Transport calls in a particular airspace change proposal and makes a decision on whether to approve or reject it, instead of the CAA, if the proposal meets certain criteria.

How will airspace modernisation affect me?

Airspace modernisation may change some of the routes that aircraft use to arrive and depart from our airports. Modernisation provides the opportunity to introduce respite routes, if this is appropriate, to share noise and breaks from noise across different areas rather than focus noise all over one community.

In some cases, it will allow better noise management measures, reducing the impact on local communities. However, some areas may experience an increase in aviation noise.

The government recognises the impact on communities living near airports and understands their concerns over local environmental issues, particularly noise.

The areas and people affected by airspace modernisation will depend on the final plans submitted by airports, and those then approved by the CAA or Secretary of State for Transport.

The government and CAA have put new policies in place to increase engagement and consultation and ensure decision making for any flight path changes is fair and transparent.

A new Independent Commission on Civil Aviation Noise (ICCAN) has also been established to advise government on civil aviation noise.

How do I get involved with consultations that affect me?

The process of modernisation must involve close consultation with all impacted stakeholders, including communities and people who operate aircraft, such as private pilots and other members of the general aviation community. Airports will need to show they have listened to and considered the views of local people and others affected by the design when submitting their plans to the CAA for a decision.

The CAA clearly sets how the change sponsors need to carry out their consultations. The change sponsor is required to agree its consultation strategies with the CAA before it begins.

To guarantee transparency in the airspace change process, the CAA airspace change portal provides all the information about every airspace change it receives. This includes those that are part of airspace modernisation, as well as any other proposals change sponsors submit.

The airspace change portal includes a postcode checking tool to see if you will be affected by airspace changes and an option to receive email updates on changes you could be affected by.


Published 2 May 2019