Air traffic controllers are warning that UK skies are running out of room for record numbers of planes.
And they have called for a drastic modernisation in the way aircraft are guided across UK airspace.
It comes as the government launches a discussion to shape the UK’s aviation industry for the next thirty years.
It wants the public to submit ideas on a wide range of subjects, from airport bag check-ins in town centres to noise reduction targets.
Aviation’s rapid growth is causing headaches across the industry.
Today is likely to be the busiest day of the year, with air traffic controllers expecting to handle over 8,800 flights.
They will guide some 770,000 flights across UK airspace through the summer.
That’s a record, and 40,000 more than last year.
Stretched to the limit
But the ability of the the UK’s National Air Traffic Control Service (Nats) to deal with this surge is being stretched to its limit.
Jamie Hutchison, Nats Director said: “In the last few weeks we have already safely managed record-breaking daily traffic levels, but the ageing design of UK airspace means we will soon reach the limits of what can be managed without delays rising significantly.”
Delays are not just inconveniences. The Department for Transport estimates that if airspace management remains unchanged, by 2030 there will be 3,100 days’ worth of flight delays – 50 times the amount seen in 2015, along with 8,000 flight cancellations a year.
In February the government launched a consultation paper on reforming airspace, and it is expected to report back in the autumn.
“Beyond the horizon”
Today’s government paper has a broader scope. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said: “Our new aviation strategy will look beyond the new runway at Heathrow and sets out a comprehensive long-term plan for UK aviation. It will support jobs and economic growth across the whole of the UK.
“Our vision puts the passenger at the heart of what we do, but also recognises the need to address the impacts of aviation on communities and the environment.”
The consultation paper, “Beyond the horizon: The future of UK aviation”, is asking for comments over the next three months on six themes:
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- Customer service.
- Safety and security.
- Global connectivity.
- Competitive markets.
- Supporting growth while tackling environmental impacts.
- Innovation, technology and skills.
Meanwhile airport capacity is expanding way beyond Heathrow’s new runway.
Today also marks the start of a £1bn investment programme to double the size of Manchester Airport’s Terminal 2.
The number of planes taking off and landing at Stansted has gone up every month for almost four years.
Cardiff Airport has seen an almost 11% rise in traffic, and Luton is recording growth of 7% this year alone.
The problem of volume has been complicated by shifts in travel patterns.
Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia have lost out to Spain, Italy and the US, which means major changes in the flows of traffic into UK airspace.
Nats itself is rolling out a new £600m ($747m) computer system known as iTec that could result in more flights and fewer delays.
But Juliet Kennedy, Nats operations director, said: “What is needed is a clear and stable UK policy that recognises how important our airspace is as a critical part of our national infrastructure.
“It is essential that we are able to balance the needs of airspace users with the environment and, of course, with the communities who experience aircraft noise.”