changes that could be made for the better


source: FORBES

In recent years there has been a considerable focus on cutting emissions from aviation to stop global warming. Even though aviation only makes up around 2% of the total problem, the percentage is expected to rise as other contributors make positive changes. Airlines like British Airways have been trialling biofuels and investing in biofuel production plans.

However, it’s not just the airlines that need to act to cut emissions in aviation. The UK’s skies are some of the most complex and crowded globally. This inevitably leads to delays, and therefore an area where there is room for improvement. 

The company responsible for the majority of air traffic control in the UK is NATS. They have been working for many years to save fuel for aircraft and therefore reduce carbon emissions by looking at how to reduce holding at Heathrow and make routes more efficient. Much progress has already been made with more efficient direct routes being formally introduced. Aircraft typically fly on set routes called airways from navigation point to point. When it is quieter, air traffic controllers would traditionally offer more direct routeings to help them save fuel.

Visualisation of aircraft flying eastbound across the Atlantic at 6am. 

source: NATS

This only goes some way to fuel reduction, though, as the aircraft would be left with excess fuel as they could not plan for the short cut. In itself, this can produce extra emissions by carrying the extra fuel weight. So NATS worked with partners in Europe to introduce more efficient night time routeings that airlines could plan in advance during quiet times. 

Further research on how air traffic control could potentially help airlines be more environmentally friendly was revealed by a study led by academics at the University of Reading. The scientists looked at the savings in fuel that could be achieved if flights took advantage of the North Atlantic’s prevailing winds.

Controller supervises aircraft across the Atlantic.

source: NATS

The way that aircraft fly across the Atlantic is different from how they operate over land. There is no traditional radar over the ocean, so aircraft have to fly further apart on an organised structure of up to 12 tracks with more separation. This is because there is less certainty of their exact position without radar surveillance. The routes in use vary each day depending on the winds, so that aircraft can get the most efficient tailwind or avoid strong headwinds to save fuel and time. 

The way that these routes operate has barely changed since the track structure was first introduced in the 1960s, as the two diagrams show.

The study, published in Environmental Research Letters, concluded that taking more advantage of the winds could save around 200 km worth of fuel per flight on average. Professor Paul Williams, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Reading, said:

“Upgrading to more efficient aircraft or switching to biofuels or batteries could lower emissions significantly, but will be costly and may take decades to achieve. Simple tweaks to flight paths are far cheaper and can offer benefits immediately.”

Oceanic tracks for 18 March 1973.

source: NATS

Oceanic tracks for 18 March 2019.

source: NATS

Controllers at the U.K.’s Prestwick Air Traffic Control centre are in charge of aircraft when the enter the area that is commonly referred to as the “ocean”. NATS had already partnered with NAV CANADA to became the first air traffic service providers in the world in 2019 to start using Aireon’s real-time satellite-based ADS-B system to monitor North Atlantic air traffic. This allows aircraft to be seen on a controller’s screen through an onboard system that works out its position by satellite rather than radar returns.

Prestwick Air Traffic Control Centre.

source: NATS

NATS had also decided to see if they could improve efficiency across the Atlantic by trialling not using the fixed track structure for oceanic aircraft. History was made on 9 March when there were no westbound tracks published across the Atlantic, and instead, air traffic controllers used a more random route environment to take advantage of the prevalent winds that day. Longer-term NATS aims to eliminate the need for the oceanic track structure altogether. 

It’s still unclear whether this actually helps airlines as much as having a more formal structure since, like other unplanned short cuts, it can make it difficult for the airline to calculate the required fuel loads. The transatlantic routes are some of the most valuable in the world. Prior to Covid-19, London to New York was the most lucrative route globally. NATS will now work with its airline customers to understand the best way to manage the crucial Atlantic routes in the most environmentally conscious way.

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