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Modernising UK airspace

The south east of England is already one of the busiest airspaces in the world with five major airports in close proximity: Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, London City and Luton. The airspace that these airports use was designed for an age when aircraft and navigation was much less sophisticated. A major airspace modernisation programme is already underway across all of these airports.

Airspace Modernisation Strategy

Modernisation of the UK’s airspace is required to accommodate growing demand for air travel. The Government has embarked on its airspace modernisation strategy which is being led by the CAA.

The aim of the strategy is to make the airspace more efficient; improve punctuality; cut CO2 emissions; reduce noise from less aircraft-holding at low levels; and to ensure there is capacity to meet future demand. The strategy will require all UK airports to modernise, as well as the network that sits above these airports which is known as en-route airspace. The airspace modernisation strategy is also part of a Europe-wide modernisation project, called the Single European Sky, to make the skies above Europe more efficient.

The Government’s ‘Strategic Rationale for Upgrading the UK Airspace’ provides more information on the need for airspace modernisation in the UK and describes the upgrades planned.

Changes that are made to accommodate a third runway at Heathrow will need to fit in with the changing airspace of the UK and Europe. Heathrow is working closely with the other airports in the south-east of England to develop an integrated approach to airspace modernisation.

Performance Based Navigation

The introduction of Performance Based Navigation (PBN) is key to achieving the aims of the airspace modernisation strategy. PBN improves the accuracy of where aircraft fly by moving away from ‘conventional’ navigation using ground-based beacons, to satellite navigation.

PBN is being introduced across the world. This new technology allows more flexible positioning of routes and enables aircraft to fly them more accurately. This helps improve operational performance and reduce delays.

However, enabling aircraft to follow an allocated route more precisely will potentially lead to routes becoming narrower and more concentrated than today and we recognise that this concentration of aircraft is a concern to local communities.

Heathrow is committed to working with local communities and with the aviation industry to find ways to implement PBN without a significant increase in the noise impact for our surrounding communities. We have been discussing options with local stakeholders in Heathrow’s regular community engagement forums over the last few years, including the Heathrow Community Noise Forum.

For more information on PBN you may like to read the CAA’s document on “Airspace Design Guidance: Noise mitigation considerations when designing PBN departure and arrival routes” (also known as CAP1378).

Airspace Change Process

Proposed changes to flight paths are approved by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), following their airspace design guidance which includes consultation on airspace change proposals with a wide range of stakeholders, including potentially affected communities.

It is the CAA who will decide whether to approve the changes put forward. The CAA will consider a range of factors including safety, security, operational and environmental impacts. For certain types of airspace change, the Secretary of State may decide to intervene and to make a decision instead of the CAA. This is known as a “call in”.

More information about the CAA’s Airspace Change Process can be found here

Heathrow expansion

We ran our first public consultation on the proposed expansion of Heathrow Airport from January to March 2018. Feedback received during this consultation will help to develop a preferred masterplan for expansion which we will consult on next year. More information can be found on our Heathrow expansion page.