Delivering the UK's invisible infrastructure project

Whether it’s trade, exports, tourism or work, our aviation industry is central to how we travel and do business with the world

November 14, 2019
article header image
The UK’s airspace currently handles around 2.5 million flights a year and carries nearly 300 million passengers. Photo: Pexels

Mark Swan – a man who has spent most of his career in the skies – has been tasked with coordinating the delivery of a national programme of airspace change in the UK. As he begins his role as head of the newly established Airspace Change Organising Group (ACOG), he sets out some of the challenges and opportunities ahead.

The UK’s aviation network is the largest in Europe and the third largest in the world. The sector supports 960,000 jobs, contributes over £22 billion to the UK economy and provides access to the world for millions of passengers and entry to global markets for thousands of businesses across the country. Whether it’s trade, exports, tourism or work, our aviation industry is central to how we travel and do business with the world. And as the UK seeks to forge new links and global connections, our future prosperity will depend on the ability to reach out to the rest of the world through the strength of our aviation network. The UK’s airspace, the network of routes and connections that make up the hidden infrastructure of the skies, currently handles around 2.5 million flights a year and carries nearly 300 million passengers. It also supports military train- ing and a community of general aviation enthusiasts and now both commercial and other drones. Forecasts suggest demand for air travel will increase, with as many as 350 million passengers using 3.25 million flights by 2030. As the aviation industry grows, it is committed to do so sustainably – developing more efficient technology, cleaner fuels and quieter planes. It may seem strange to refer to our airspace as infrastructure considering there is nothing to see. However, just as traffic is directed by roads and trains by railways, so too are the skies made up of an intricate network of routes that keep aircraft flying safely. Yet, while the roads and railways have been continuously improved and upgraded over many years, our airspace has remained largely unchanged for several decades. Meanwhile aircraft technology – and the way they navigate – has come a long way. As a result, modern aircrafts are not being used as effectively, or efficiently, as they could be.
Improvements in technology are driving changes to airspace across the world – a programme of airspace modernisation is already happening in Europe, the US and other major countries across the globe. In line with this, the UK is now embarking on its own airspace change programme, set out as part of the Government’s Airspace Modernisation Strategy, published in December 2018. This is an opportunity to transform our skies and make our journeys quicker, quieter and cleaner, bringing benefits to the economy, the environment and consumers. If our airspace is not modernised, delays faced by passengers will increase, with one in three flights likely to be delayed by half an hour or more by 2030. The creation of ACOG marks a deliberate step change in delivering the Government’s vision for modernising the UK’s national airspace infrastructure.
We have been tasked by the DfT and CAA to coordinate the delivery of airspace changes among 27 major airports across the UK. This is an extensive programme of change which is already underway. ACOG is facilitating this process and is working closely with air traffic service providers, airlines, airports and a range of other stakeholders to develop the overall concept of operations for national airspace transformation and produce the strategic business case for modernisation. Over the next few years, as airports and the national air traffic service provider, NATS, consult on flight path options, ACOG will ensure that the plans are influenced by a diverse range of stakeholder views before being submitted to the CAA for approval. This will include noise and environmental groups as well as communities living around airports. This is an exciting and challenging task; one that is of critical importance to the UK and that will define our aviation industry for years to come. I look forward to getting started.