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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 the key to achieving airspace modernisation. PBN improves the accuracy of where aircraft fly by moving away from outdated and conventional navigation using ground-based beacons, to modern satellite navigation. This is similar to the sat navs that most people have in their cars today.

As Heathrow’s airspace and the routes aircraft fly are redesigned to accommodate the expansion of the airport and a new runway, we will move to using PBN. Heathrow needs to introduce PBN to meet our commitments to the Government’s airspace modernisation strategy.

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. It also provides opportunities to avoid noise sensitive areas.

PBN flight paths will be narrower and more concentrated than they are today and we understand that this may be a concern to some local communities. Heathrow is committed to working with residents, local stakeholders and the aviation industry to find ways to introduce PBN while seeking to limit negative effects from aircraft noise.

We have been discussing potential impacts of PBN with local stakeholders in Heathrow’s regular community engagement forums over the last few years – including the Heathrow Community Noise Forum - and considering options to “share” aircraft noise to reduce the potential impact of concentration of flight paths. We also undertook a public consultation last year on airspace design principles, where we asked for feedback on potential principles to guide how we design our future flight paths, including whether we should look to share flights across a wider area.

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).